I’m taking January off to get some distance from the novel. In the meantime, I’m writing some short stories.
Here’s one that’s something completely different. Note that this is a VERY rough draft.
Dominick planted his walking stick then reached forward and grabbed one of the boulders. With a heave he pulled himself up between them. The trail, such as it was, flattened up here. This might be a good place to –
“Don’t get too far ahead!”
Dominick looked over his shoulder. The rest of the party was strung out on the switchbacks below. He shook his head. The young toughs had pushed themselves hard in the morning, making pointed remarks about his plodding pace. They’d capered and jumped like trained squirrels dancing for a street musician and called him “Old Man”. And now? Breathing hard.
Dominick started to say something then thought better of it. The sun was getting low and the shadow from the eastern peak was only a few hundred yards from the trail. Over there, a stand of trees stunted from the altitude. Yes, here would be good.
Another call from down below. “Wait for us, damn you!”. Duncan ignored them, shrugged off his pack and unsnapped the hatchet from the sheeth at his hip. It was going to get cold as soon as that shadow reached them. He pushed the pack towards one stone, reserving a spot for himself later, then headed off towards the mishapen trees.
* * *
The fire cracked and spit sparks as the resinous pockets caught. There’d be coals to cook on soon enough. Around the fire the small logs he’d split steamed, drying before it was their turn to burn.
“Do you even know where you’re going, old man?”
Dominick looked over at him. Bild – one of the northmen. Muscle hired by the merchant’s guild. Was it worth responding to him? He wasn’t stupid, but his arrogance clouded his judgement, so it was a small distinction. Dominick weighed his options. He had nothing to gain from answering him, but there was also no need to irritate him further.
Bild poked at the fire with a stick. “This doesn’t look like the iron road you talked about.”
Dominick wasn’t much inclined to respond, but he looked to his right where Lars sat. Lars was observing the interaction with deep interest. OK, for Lars, then – the Merchants’ representative paid the bills and he, at least, deserved answers for his coin. “The iron road ran west of here.” He pointed out into the deepening evening, to a dimly seen pass. All eyes followed his hand. “An earthquake caused the path crumble and slide downhill. The iron road was disrupted, but the upper end of it should still be up ahead.”
Bild scoffed. “If the path crumbled and slid, there’d be torn rock down below. It’s just forest.”
Lars looked thoughtfully off into the darkness, at the slope below where Dominick had pointed, then turned to Bild. “Forest now. The tales say the earthquake was two Ages ago.” He paused, thinking. “Don’t be so quick to scoff.”
Bild looked away, then stabbed at the fire again, angrilly.
* * *
Dominick’s potatoes sizzled in the bottom of the cast iron pan nestled in the coals. Bild and the other Northmen took turns leaning forward, rotating the spits of green wood that held their strips of beef over the heat.
“Do you play cards, old man?”
Dominick looked up from his potatoes. “I’ve been known to.”
“Fancy a game?”
“You north folk only play for stakes, right?”
Bild smirked. “Our women sometimes play for fun.” He elbowed one of his companions in case the punchline had been missed.
Dominick tried hard to keep the smile off his face. The hook had been baited and was in the water. “I don’t have to gamble with.”
Bild leaned forward. “Sure you do. That pan. That knife. Your cloak. You’ve got a lot to wager.”
Dominick made a show of looking reluctant. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Bild lean forward. The fish was mouthing the worm. “OK, sure.” The line jerked and the fish was caught.
Bild smiled and reached to an inner pocket to get a deck of cards.
* * *
Dominick reached into his pan with a long handled fork and speared one of the browned potatoe slices, then deftly picked it off the tines with his teeth. Salt. Pepper. Oil. Perfect.
He placed the fork across his lap and took the cards he was handed. Five of lathes, seven of anvils, eight of swine. An inside draw. He thought for a moment. They were playing with out the major or minor arcana. Six suits, eight number cards per suit. Forty eight cards in the deck. Forty five aside from the ones in his hand. He needed a six and there were six of them to be had, so each card that came up had a six in 45 chance of being one he needed. Thirteen chances in a hundred. Not good enough to increase his bet, but Bild and Thane were loud, crass, and unsubtle. They’d reveal their cards soon enough.
Bild opened his mouth to say something. Dominick paid attention while appearing not to. He was about to learn what Bild held.
* * *
Dominick looked over his pile of winnings. Next to his own cast iron pan, his fork, and his modest coin bag were piled Bild’s ornately carved drinking mug, his silver cloak clasp, his much larger coin bag, and two small knives that showed the craftsmanship of the Misty Islands. Across the fire Bild himself glowered. It had been fun, but it was time to lose it all back now. He didn’t need a knife in the back or a push off a cliff…and with a Northman’s sense of honor, the odds of either of those over the next few days were even better than drawing a swine card when all the ships and horses had been removed from the deck.
Dominick looked at his hand. Three cattle, and three ships – ranked. “I’ve got nothing. I need to draw again.”
Lars asked “How many?”
Dominick shrugged sadly. “Two, please.” He threw two of his ships into the muck and Lars passed him two new cards. Both cattle. Domick hid his smirk. He’d tried to ruin his hand and had made it even better. He tossed the whole thing into the pile. “You win, Bild. You win it all.” He pushed back the drinking mug, the clasp, and the rest. “But at least I keep my pan and fork. I think that’s enough gambling for me.”
A look of shock washed over Bild’s fire-lit face, showing even through his blonde beard, then he threw back his head and laughed, loudly. “You mechanics, you think you can calculate everything – but in the end, it’s always boldness that wins the day!” He leaned forward and clapped Duncan on one shoulder. Duncan played his role and looked surprised and then, after a moment affable. The abashed bookworm mechanic, being allowed into – well, not the inner circle of the warrior’s friendship, but at least an outter circle.
Bild picked up his mug from the betting pot then turned to his side to recover his meadskin. He removed the bone stopper from the spout and poured, then looked to Dominick. “Some for you, old man?” The phrase had turned from an insult to a nickname. Dominick smiled. “Sure.” He held out his wooden cup.
Bild downed half his mug in one swallow and Dominick sipped at his, then coughed. It was rough. Whatever distillation the Northmen used was done at too high a temperature – all sorts of nasty bits came across with the good stuff. Bild roared again at his discomfort. “Your problem is that you spend too much time in your workshops, and not enough in the open air. Drink more – it will put hair on your chest!”
Dominick repressed the urge to explain that his chest was already pretty hairy – likely more so than the fair haired warrior’s. He took another sip from his mug and let much of it spill and run down his cheeks and neck. In the flickering firelight no one would see.
Dominick kept his mug elevated for a long moment, then put it down. Bild now seemed satisfied that Dominick was drinking like a man. He grinned as he put the deck of cards back into an inner pocket, then poured himself a second mug of the distilled mead. After a long sip he looked around their little shared ball of warmth in the midst of the vast mountain range with a generous and friendly eye. “I have a question for you, old man.”
Dominick raised one eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Do you really believe in technology?”
Dominick coughed again at the unexpected question. “Believe in it?”
“Yes. Do you think the myths are real?”
Dominick picked up his fork and banged it against his cast iron pan. “I don’t have to believe in it. I can see it with my own eyes, touch it with my own hands.”
Bild furrowed his brow. “What? A pan? A fork?”
“That’s just blacksmithing. That’s craftsmanship.”
Dominick shook his head. “Craftsmanship. Technology. It’s the same thing.”
Bild chuckled, but there was an air of unease beneath it. “No, technology is secret, ancient things. Lathes. Machines. The iron road.” He transferred his mug to his left hand, then used his free right to pull his sword a few inches out of its sheeth. “These things, this is just honest hand work.”
Dominick shook his head again. “A scholar I met in Kingsport told me that the root of the word ‘technology’ -”
Dominick thought for a moment. “Scholars tell us that words are passed on from age to age. Like an inheritance. But just like an inheritance, they can change uses. What your grandfather used as a barn might be used as a boatshed by you, and your son -”
Thane, normally silent, broke in “- as a mead-hall!” He laughed at his joke, but Bild shushed him.
Dominick looked at Bild appraisingly. This one wanted to learn. There might be more than bragging and bluster to him after all. Dominick continued. “Words are the same. The word ‘technology’ that we use to talk about machines, and engines, an age ago, the ancients used it to refer to fine ironworking. And age before that the same word referred to woodworking and house-building. And an age before that, the scholar told me, the word just meant ‘anything done by hand’.” Dominick paused. “So, no, I don’t think that there’s a difference between craftmanship and technology….and, yes, I believe in technology.”
Bild looked thoughtful. “But that dodges the real question – if technology is real, and the ancients had it, then why don’t we have it still? The ancients had carpentry, and we have carpentry. They had blacksmithing, and we have blacksmithing.”
Dominick shrugged. “That I can’t answer. There’s an old song that talks about the ages as if they were seasons. Perhaps there’s an age for everything, and in the fall, things die.”
Bild rolled that thought around in his head as the firelight played over his features. “Like the wizards’ magic dying the last ten years.”
Dominick nodded. “Yes, like that.”
Bild looked aside, then looked back. “If things die in the fall, they also come to life in the spring. Perhaps this technology will come back alive.”
Dominick looked over at Lars the merchant and the two shared a look of concern.
Bild was definitely smarter than he looked.
* * *
(to be continued)