Here is Episode 3 of four parts. The last part will be posted tomorrow.
A few weeks later, with a scattering of snow on the ground, Sani’s tribe was ready to continue its trip north to the Craeia Mountains. Webb and Eleanor had forsaken their Aeryan clothing for Sinti garb, which at this point in the season consisted of furs and heavy leathers. The tribe traded their horses for a line of wooly aurochs that they incessantly talked to, who in turn chewed their cud and calmly walked forward, the trade items they carried on their burly backs.
The trail they followed ran straight north along the river, then began to wind as they entered the foothills. The river turned from a wide, meandering ribbon of silver into a narrower, rushing torrent falling down the hillside. And their path grew steeper as the days wore on. Webb and Eleanor were no longer able to ride and struggled on foot up the now narrow pathway to the mountains.
“I know the Crae live here in the mountains,” Webb said to Sani. “But does there home have a name?”
“We will meet them in a city called Eas Cathair,” Sani said. “It is the only place of their land where foreigners are allowed.”
“Eas is the part of the city where we will go,” Eleanor said. “Cathair is where their people live. And then there is the sealed city of Oirnoss.”
“Things we are not concerned with,” Sani said. “If you are caught outside of Eas, you will be imprisoned or banished, or worse.”
“A hospitable people,” Webb said wryly.
Sani shook his head. “They have a long memory, and reason to fear your people.” He caught himself. “I mean, the Aeryans. You are now Sinti.”
“Do they have scientists? People like me?”
“Scientists, yes,” Sani said. “I doubt there are any people like you though,” he added, grinning. “Anywhere.”
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” Eleanor added, reaching up and taking his hand. “I will help you find the scientists.”
They arrived at the walls of Eas Cathair late the next day. The river that they had been following disappeared into the wall of rock they faced. They planned on camping in the Foreign Quarter within Eas, but they would need to be acknowledged outside the gates first.
Sani explained that the Crae, who were sensitive to light, did their trading after dark, and so the band of traders waited for the sun to go down. Not long after it did, Webb watched a line of people dressed in white cotton garments come weaving out of a doorway set in the stone wall. It reminded him of stories of the dead rising from the traditional crypts of the Aeryans set in the walls of the ancient burial grounds.
He watched silently as the first one unwrapped his face and spoke to the lead trader. Sani, the designated translator, stepped forward and translated for the trader. There were a few moments of hesitation on the part of both sides, but after a moment or two, both sides relaxed and the usual bartering began.
While he was watching the others, a tall, white-faced Crae stepped up to him and began to finger the canvas bag that he carried. Surprised, Webb opened it up and dumped out the small inventions he had brought in the bag. He pointed out things that he thought the Crae might be interested in, but the Crae showed no interest. Finally he picked up a wind-up toy shaped like a monkey beating on a drum.
“Lluto maga swarhari,” the Crae said to Webb, who raised an eyebrow.
“He said it looks like an Aeryan,” Sani said, arriving behind Webb. “Don’t take it as an insult.”
“I won’t,” Webb said. “Tell him it looks like my Uncle Drake.”
Sani translated, and the Crae laughed. Webb realized that he had broken through the obvious racial bias, and wasted no time taking advantage of it.
“Tell him I am interested in meeting their scientists,” Webb said. “Ask him if it is possible.”
Sani translated, and the Crae grew suddenly serious, shaking his head.
“Illuto mad har ituswana,” he said. “Verbal.”
“He says they were all recently arrested for crimes against the state,” Webb said. The Crae spoke again and Webb continued translating. “Apparently one of the clans has taken power in the government. They are very traditional, and they didn’t like some of the ideas that were being shared by the scientists.”
“I see,” Webb said. “Tell him that I don’t want to change anything, or stir up any problems. I just have a few questions.”
Sani translated, but the Crae shook his head again, and spoke.
“He says that they are being held in prison in Oirnoss, and that no one can see them.”
Webb nodded sadly. He contemplated the irony of traveling by horseback and foot for months, only to be stopped so close to his goal. He watched as the trading continued, lost in his own thoughts. As the night wore on and the morning grew closer, the Crae that were there dwindled down to just a few, then the last of them disappeared. Webb watched them leave, wondering what he would do now.
“Come,” Sani said to him. “We must enter Eas and set up camp.”
Webb nodded and looked around for Eleanor.
“Eleanor? Eleanor!” he shouted, but did not see her anywhere. He asked the other Sinti around him, but no one had seen her. Then he remembered what she had said last.
“Don’t worry, Daddy,” she had said. “I will help you find the scientists.”
Without a moment’s thought, he bolted for the door where he had seen the Crae disappear. There were no guards at the entrance, and with Sani yelling at him from behind, Webb pulled it open and ran into the darkened entrance.
Immediately he knew that it was a mistake. When the door closed behind him, he realized that he was surrounded by complete darkness. He had wondered at the large, round eyes of the Crae, and now he realized that it was a result of centuries living below ground in the dark. He didn’t have that advantage, and with his travel across country in the past few months, his eyes had developed in other ways. He stood silently for a long moment, listening to the sounds of running water in the distance and finally, of soft talking and footsteps ahead of him.
He felt with his hands and found a railing, and quickly grasped it, having faith that his eyes would eventually adjust to the darkness. He took one step after another, and realized that he was on a descending staircase. He moved as quickly as he dared, afraid that he would lose the party of traders he was following. He stumbled down the stairway as best he could, and was relieved that he could see a little better when he got to the bottom. Having come in the door at night, giving his eyes time to adjust, and some faint lights in the hallway combined to make it possible for him to see. He picked up his pace and ran after the traders.
The hallway went on for a long way, then turned right and began to rise again. At the end of the incline was another doorway. He opened it and found himself in a large room, filled with people. Crae people. It seemed to be some sort of marketplace, and was more brightly lit than the hallway had been.
Looking down at the buckskins he wore, he realized that he would look very strange, and in an xenophobic world such as the Crae had, he wouldn’t last very long.
And then he saw…her. Three little Crae children followed along the party that he had been following, and although all of them were wrapped in the cotton dress that was common to the Crae, one of them had buckskin leggings. She turned her head to talk to the others, and he saw that it was indeed Eleanor.
Without thinking, he rushed from the doorway where he stood and ran for them, afraid that they would make another turn and disappear forever.
“Eleanor!” he shouted, and immediately the Crae around him turned and looked at the strange man in buckskins. He ran across the open marketplace and grabbed the little girl. A moment later, he was surrounded by armed guards, who grabbed his arms and threw him to the ground.
“It’s my little girl!” he shouted as they held him down. The crowd around him burst into shouting. It was as if he had been caught kidnapping a child, which in their eyes he had. He just had a chance to look at Eleanor’s surprised face once more before something heavy and blunt hit him on the back of the head and he lost consciousness.
He woke up in a darkened cell, straw on the floor beneath him and the sound of running water beneath the floor. His head felt like it would explode. He slowly raised himself and asked the age-old predictable question for people in his situation:
“Where am I?”
“You’re in a prison cell in Oirnoss,” came a woman’s voice from the next cell. “Obviously not the place you wanted to be.”
“Why am I here?” Webb asked.
“Obviously you did something you weren’t supposed to do,” another voice said, this one also a woman. “Or are someone you aren’t supposed to be.”
“Probably a little bit of both,” Webb said, rubbing his head. He then went on to explain what had happened.
“Children have a tendency to get their parents in trouble at times,” the first woman said. “But let me introduce myself. I am Dr. Aalish Alastrom, chief chemist and alchemist for the University of Crae. My colleague on the other side there is Dr. Bearnas Aed.”
“Physicist and metallurgist,” the second voice added.
“Why are you here?” Webb asked.
“For knowing more than we should and not keeping our mouths shut about it,” Dr. Alastrom said. “But you haven’t told us your name.”
“I am Webber Marchard, inventor for the Aeryans, and more recently, the Sinti.”
“Ah, a world traveler,” said Dr. Aed. “That in itself can get you into trouble around here.”
“I am surprised that you speak Aeryan,” Webb said.
“We know quite a few things, and that’s the problem,” said Dr. Alastrom. “The new government doesn’t care about knowing the truth, only about making money and hoarding it.”
“And those of us who point out the obvious, such as the fact that many are starving while the rich get richer end up here,” said Dr. Aed.
Dr. Alastrom inhaled loudly through her nostrils. “That and the idea that all women should be satisfied with having children and nothing more.”
“If we did that, then who would do all the thinking around here?” Dr. Aed said, laughing and Dr. Alastrom joined her.
“You two must be the scientists I have traveled here to see,” said Webb. He told the story of the balloon ride and his goal of returning Eleanor to the City in the Clouds.
“Ambitious, I must say,” Dr. Aed said. “Could get you in trouble around here.”
“What will they do?” Dr. Alastrom said. “Throw him in prison?”
“Will you help me?” Webb said.
“We will, as much as we can,” Dr. Alastrom said.
“But first I must find out where my daughter is,” he added.
“That won’t be a problem,” Dr. Aed said. As if on cue, they heard the bolt slide back on the heavy metal door at the end of the hall. It was followed by the sound of small feet on the stone ground. Webb waited and soon saw children coming toward his cell. Leading them was Eleanor.
“Eleanor! My precious girl! Where have you been!”
“I’m fine, Daddy,” she said. “I told you I would find the scientists for you.”
“That you did,” Webb said, reaching out and touching her tenderly as she laid a bowl down outside the iron bars.
“Look Daddy, we brought you stew,” Eleanor said.
“They think they will convince us that being a mother is more important that our work by surrounding us with children,” Dr. Alastrom said. “So we never see a jailer, just the children.”
“Well, if there’s a fight or too much noise, we see a jailer,” said Dr. Aed. “But not every day.”
“In the meantime, the children get the run of the prison.”
“Can you get them to bring in things for you?” Webb asked.
“You mean, like a weapon?” Dr. Aed asked. “No, the jailer inspects everything.”
“But what about things he doesn’t understand?” Webb asked. “Like special seasoning for your food.”
“That would probably be OK,” Dr. Alastrom said. “What did you have in mind?”
“Nothing to spice up stew like a little charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulphur,” said Webb. There was a pause, and then the two women started laughing.
“I like the way this boy thinks,” said Dr. Alastrom.
They had plenty of time to talk, and so they spent the next few weeks coming up with a plan. Then suddenly, the children stopped coming to the cells, and the jailer took their place. When they asked what happened to the children, the jailer explained that the new government wanted all children in school to learn how superior the Crae were to all other races.
“That’s exactly what we need to be teaching them,” said Dr. Aed. “That way they will feel justified when the next war comes.”
The weeks turned into months, and the three prisoners turned their discussion from escape to Webb’s challenge of taking Eleanor back to the Esperians. The two scientists tried to share with Webb everything they knew about the Esperians, which wasn’t much.
“We do know that at one time the Crae and the Esperians were one race,” Dr. Alastrom said. “After the Genos War, both groups wanted to escape from the other races, but the Crae and the Esperians had different ideas on how to do it. We chose to dig down deep, and they chose to go up high. We chose science; they chose magic. But one thing both groups still have in common is the prevailing belief that we are better than anyone else.”
“That will be our downfall,” said Dr. Aed. “It’s always been mankind’s downfall.”
“That’s why it is important to take Eleanor back to her people,” said Webb. “When they see how strong and smart and beautiful she is, they will see there is merit in other races.”
“That’s one thought,” Dr. Alastrom said. “But I have never put it past any group of people to choose stupidity over logic.”
And then the children returned. Webb almost didn’t recognize Eleanor. She had grown up tall and more beautiful that he could ever have imagined.
“It’s been six months,” she said. “I have been adopted by the Drust family, one of the leaders in the new government. They want me to be one of them, but I would only agree to it if they let me visit you once a week.”
“Once a week!” Webb cried, who had hoped she had returned to him for good.
“Don’t worry,” Dr. Aed said. “With her connections in the new government, Eleanor can be of great help to us. Thanks to the stockpile of chemicals that the children were able to bring to us, we have a way out of our cells. Beneath us is the mighty underwater river, which will lead us out of the mountains. We will take the river outside of Oirnoss, outside of Eas Cathair, and find a boat to take us downstream. From there, we will travel to your city of Zymont, if your people will accept us.”
“Zymont is a city of many peoples,” Webb said proudly. “You will be gladly accepted. And if you aren’t, we will all go somewhere where you will be.”
“We will need Eleanor to visit my cousin in Eas Cathair,” said Dr. Alastrom. “He can arrange for a boat for us. We will take it to the ocean and then your home.”
“I hate to say it, but there are lot of holes in your plan,” Webb said. “Not that I’m not behind it 100 percent. For instance, that is a raging river below us. Do either one of you fine ladies know how to swim?”
There was a long pause before Dr. Aed answered. “I had assumed you are a strong young man and a strong swimmer. In addition, we have our bedding to help us stay afloat.”
Webb looked at the old, holey, tattered mattress stuffed full of wood chips that lay in a corner of the room.
“Who says there is no faith in science?” he muttered to himself.
It would be another week before Eleanor visited them again. She agreed to find Cilian, the cousin of Dr. Alastrom in Eas Cathair, and pass on the message of their escape. In the meantime, the three of them experimented to find just the right mixture of charcoal, potassium nitrate and sulphur to make black powder powerful enough to blow a hole in the floor, yet not enough to kill them all.
They also set aside as much food as they could afford, focusing on food that they believed would stay good for several weeks if necessary. Webb found himself excited, but terrified by the idea that very soon an explosion would rip a hole in the floor, he would be forced to jump who knew how far to the water below, swim for who knew how long, then travel across hostile country with strangers for months to get home.
And then one day he woke up to a familiar voice. Eleanor had come to the cell door, happy as ever, and he was glad to see her. In her hand, she held the leather Sinti clothing she had worn into the city.
“Is it today?” she asked, and he knew that he could not back down.
“Yes, today is the day,” he answered.
Eleanor went from cell to cell, talking to the three prisoners, and conveyed the information that Dr. Alastrom had for them. Eleanor told him that Dr. Alastrom was compressing the black powder, which had been crammed into pots they normally used for their toilets, next to a pillar in the corner of her cell. It was the corner that adjoined his, as well as faced the hallway where Eleanor stood. When she was done, Dr. Alastrom spoke.
“Now, even with all our experiments, I am not sure how powerful of an explosion we will have. So Webber, please gather your belongings and go the farthest corner of your cell. You too, Dr. Aed. Eleanor, you will have to crouch down low beside your father at the end of the hall.”
Eleanor and Webb did what they were told, with Webb pulling his bedding over his head. “Ten seconds,” he heard the scientist say, and he began counting to himself.
When he got to ten, there was a pause, and then a massive roar filled the room. Eleanor shrieked beside him, and he reached through the bars to assure her. Rock and dust filled the air, and Webb pulled the bedding back to see what had happened.
Despite the dust and rock fragments still flying, the room remained the same. He heard shouting coming from outside the cells, and his heart sank.
“Well,” he said slowly. “It was a nice try….”
He never finished that thought. The floor below him shuddered and he felt himself fall. He watched the rock floor in all directions begin to fall with him, and he instinctively reached over for Eleanor. The bars remained behind as they fell, and he grasped the little girl’s arm, his other arm still wrapped around the bedding. An instant later, he felt the shock of cold water.
As dilapidated as they appeared, the bedding was a success as a floatation device. He clutched both Eleanor and the bedding, and after a moment underwater, he found them both afloat on the surface of the dark water. But that was all that he could recognize. He pulled Eleanor, sputtering and coughing, over to the mattress, and let the current pull them through the darkness. He felt the mattress bump and crash into the rock sides of the underwater river, and felt his legs bang against rocks time and again. He had no idea how long they were in the current, or whether the other two had made it safely into the water as well. But soon enough, he saw light ahead of them, and the underwater river opened up to brightness.
For someone who had spent the last six months underground in dim light, the sunlight was both welcome and overwhelmingly bright. He took a moment to realize that it was early morning, and that they were near to where he had first met the Crae. A moment later, he saw the two older women, both almost drowned, but reasonably in one piece.
“Please,” the one he now knew as Dr. Aed said weakly. “The sun is painful.”
He looked at her pale face and realized that he hadn’t taken their fair skin and sensitive eyes into account. It would be difficult for them to travel in the sunlight. He pulled Eleanor and Dr. Aed out of the water to some tall weeds that stood nearby, then tore the bedding into pieces and draped the fabric over her. While he was working on her, Eleanor found Dr. Alastrom not too far away. She helped her in the same way.
While they were resting, Webb looked around. He knew that the explosion would have the Crae coming to look for them, but the morning light gave him an advantage, and he knew that he could take the daylight to get as far south as possible before they started their pursuit in earnest.
He found the small boat left there by Dr. Alastrom’s cousin Cilian, and he collected the supplies, the women and Eleanor and loaded them on board. The river was running quite rapidly, and Webb realized that they would travel quickly without his need to paddle. His biggest responsibility would be simply keeping them from dashing on the rocks.
They traveled south around the clock, the two women sleeping under cover during the day and Eleanor and Webb sleeping at night while the scientists steered them along the river. It took just a few days before they came upon the camp where Webb had won his challenge on top of the pole. The two women stayed in the boat and Eleanor and Webb went into the camp and traded for some proper Sinti clothing for the women, more food and directions. Webb was well known in the camp, and he had no trouble getting what he needed.
They traveled for another three weeks until they got to Charter’s Corner, a small Aeryan outpost on the coast where the Winding River met the Tserian Ocean. It was very rustic, and was used both as a trading post and a transportation hub.
Webb grinned to himself as they tied up the boat at the local wharf. They arrived at dusk, so the two women, now clad in Sinti leathers, joined them on the wharf. The wharf stood in front of a large building with loud music and shouting coming from it. A big sign read: The Black Death Saloon.
“What are you smiling at?” Dr. Alastrom asked.
“This place,” he said. “My uncle Drake and I came here many years ago with a baby we had discovered that fell from the sky.” He looked at Eleanor who continued to grow and looked beautiful even in leather Sinti clothes. “My, how the world has changed.”
“Has the world changed, or have you changed?” Dr. Alastrom asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Good point.” He looked around him. “All I know is that we need to be careful in this place. They are supposed to be Aeryan, but there is some question where their loyalties lie. A lot of shipping—and people—have disappeared from this place.”
“Then I think it’s best that we arrange for our transportation as quickly as possible and leave while we can,” said Dr. Alastrom. “Here, this may help.” She held out two large pieces of gold, and smiled. “It helps to be an alchemist sometimes.”
Webb led them to a weathered building that read “Charters” on the outside. “Wait outside,” he said curtly, then pushed his way through the door. Webb stepped forward to the counter and gestured to the old man who sat at a desk in the back.
“Looking for Bobbie Welch,” he said to the man.
“Captain Welch is out. Dead. Injured. Sick. On vacation. Busy. Something.”
“Too busy for four customers willing to pay top credits to get to Zymont?” He held up the two gold pieces.
“Bobbie,” the man then shouted to the back room. “You want to make some money?” When no answer came, he poked his head in the doorway to the back room. “Guess he left. He’s probably next door at the bar.”
Webb nodded slightly. “Figures.”
He turned and went back out the front door and ran into the two scientists and Eleanor.
“It’ll be a minute more,” he said, an annoyed look on his face. “Our captain is drinking.”
“Daddy, we need to leave,” Eleanor said. Webb noticed a frightened look on her face that he hadn’t seen before. “We need to leave now.”
He bent down and talked to her. “I know, sweetheart. That’s what I am trying to arrange. The captain is right in there. As soon as I can arrange for him to leave, we will get out of here.”
Webb left the three of them and entered the dingy saloon. He saw Captain Welch, a oversized middle-aged sailor, at the end of the bar, obviously drunk. Shaking his head, he grabbed a pitcher of beer and dumped it over the big man’s head.
Spluttering, Welch came to life. He shook himself and then started to reach for Webb, his face twisted in anger. Then he paused when he saw the two pieces of gold in Webb’s fingers. His face turned into a smile, and he held out his hand.
“Transportation for four to Zymont, and no questions asked,” Webb said.
“When?” Welch said. “Tides out, and I need to stock provisions.”
“As soon as humanly possible.”
“Dawn soon enough?”
In response, they both heard a scream outside the saloon. Immediately Webb thought of Eleanor’s last words: “We need to leave now.” He pushed past Welch and the other customers and ran out the door. What he saw next was totally unexpected.