Chapter 38 – Monday Afternoon, June 16 – Road Work
Rufus stood in front of the inn, watching the crowd disperse. The Earl had disappeared inside the castle with the latest poor souls he had summoned from the ether in a desperate attempt to control the elemental forces at work in the valley.
Shaking his head, Rufus took his slide whistle from his robes and began a soft but piercing song. Shortly, Parrot the hawk appeared and landed on his shoulder.
Cleo and D-Stract emerged from the inn and stood beside him, admiring the bird. They looked at each other and sighed.
Cleo broke the silence. “What next?”
Rufus shrugged. “Grace says things are slow in the clinic, but she’s staying there to help prepare for working on the wolves. Sapphire’s group is camped out in the barrens waiting for Raven to show up.”
D-Stract shook her head. “The dwarves say they are waiting on some equipment — supposed to come in on the Buccaneer before they can start drilling. Not much point in going after the razor dogs until we get movement along those lines, and can move the Yetis.”
Cleo pouted. “What about the sand? Can we start going after that before the drilling is done?”
D-Stract nodded. “Yeah. I’d like to play around with this shark’s tooth some, too, and get the hang of underwater operations. This magic stuff is pretty new to me, and I’ll need your help.”
Rufus smiled. “You’ve got it.”
Slowly the murmur of another crowd grew from the direction of the town. There was a large scraping noise, as well as some heavy thuds. They turned and waited to see what would come around the corner, bows and staff close at hand.
First around the corner was a cave troll, followed by an elephant. High on the elephant’s shoulders was the tiny figure of Duncan. Dragging behind was a sled full of rocks. The bows disappeared and Rufus leaned on his staff. “Hey Strong! How’s Tootsie?”
Strong looked at him and grunted. “She good. Stay at mine.” He trudged on, waving his arms to make sure the elephant had a clear path, though no townsfolk stood in his way.
Tinker and the scarecrow followed along behind, shouting for people to make way. Bemused, the adventurers stepped back into the inn to let the procession by. Duncan waved frantically at them from atop Trixie as they passed. Then, Rufus and the others followed the procession out the North Bridge Gate and down the road towards the marsh.
D-Stract called out. “Hey, Scarecrow! Who’s in charge of all this?”
The scarecrow fell back to talk with them. “Master Tinker took over and Roddy was only too happy to let him. He said machines were his thing, not masonry, though of course Tinker doesn’t know much about it either. Plunkett is the expert there – he’s probably waiting out at the first break in the causeway to meet us, by the way – but he’s not showing much in the way of leadership. Sunny has the acting troop out gathering clay from the marsh. They obviously want to get back on the road, but what a mess they’re making! I suppose what they lack in skill, they make up for with enthusiasm. I think a mud-slinging fight broke out between Blaze and Silky, but they denied it. I can’t imagine how they are going to manage firing all that clay, once it gets spread on the road, without hurting themselves. I am definitely not the one to organize the firing, though.” He tugged at some of the straw sticking out of his shirt. “You know how it is.”
Rufus smiled and nodded. He raised a hand to cut off the flow of words. “Don’t worry about that. I will be able to use my magic to fire the road when the time comes. In fact, we’re just now heading out to evaluate the sand situation.”
The scarecrow shook his head, and had to catch his hat and cram it back on. “We have plenty of sand. We’ve got wagonloads of it out by the first break. The wood planks are in place, but we’re going slow with the cap-stones from Uptown. Tinker’s not sure the planks can hold the weight.”
“Okay then. The sand we recover will be for the glassworks, later on. I guess we’d better wait until the road crews have some slack time. But tell Tinker we have to make sure to haul back sand to the beach before we let our labor force go.”
The scarecrow nodded. “I’m sure that’ll be fine. Hey, got to run!” He trotted on ahead on wobbly knees. The adventurers continued slowly, watching as the procession crossed over the peninsula and disappeared from sight.
D-Stract danced ahead, turned around, and continued walking backwards, facing the other two. “Well, I’m sure glad we’re not the only ones with some initiative around here.”
Rufus nodded. “I think Tinker is more eager to get back on the road than those actors.”
Cleo frowned. “Why isn’t the Earl organizing all this?”
D-Stract snorted. “You ever hear the expression ‘a fish out of water’? He has no idea what he’s doing.”
Rufus shook his head. “The world is full of people who don’t appreciate the power of the magic they wield. I don’t know who is worse, the Earl or Flicker. I think that’s why civilization fell, this last time.”
“Ha! You can have your civilization. I’ve had enough of brothels and bars to last a lifetime.”
“But that’s not what civilization is about; it’s about preserving learning from generation to generation.” The two of them debated the pros and cons of civilization until they came to the Marsh family dwellings.
Screetcher greeted them with a single squawk and remained roosting on the fisher hut above them.
Crystal emerged from the largest hut, wiping her hands. “Good afternoon!”
D-Stract waved. “Hello there! Can we borrow…”
“Not again! Rip says somebody is taking his boat almost every…”
“No, no! We’re going to go out swimming to survey the sand bar – wondered if you had a shovel or something we could poke around with.”
Rufus suddenly closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ve got a bad feeling…” A vision swept over him of D-Stract’s body, floating in the water, surrounded by blood, and being torn at by crab-men. He moaned and muttered. “No, can’t happen that way. Gotta change things up, change things up.” Rufus opened his eyes. “Wait. Crystal. Could you get Rip to help us for a bit? Could you call him or something?”
Crystal frowned. “Okay.” She turned her face up to the roof and chittered a bit at Screether, who then gave one squawk and flew off over the marsh.
“Thanks. Rather than a shovel, maybe a smaller spade, like Flo might use for digging clams, with a handle on it?”
Crystal nodded. “Sure, we’ve got a couple of those around here somewhere.”
“And some rope? I’m betting you have plenty of rope…”
Cleo raised a hand. “I’ve got rope, pretty high test stuff.”
D-Stract nodded. “Great! Can you put a hitch in it every five yards so Rufus can tell how far out I find sand in each direction? You can tie the spade to the end and I’ll dig to see the depth. We can map it all.”
Rufus muttered again. “Gotta change it up, gotta change it up.” He raised his voice. “Yes, with a loop around your waist so we can pull you in if you get in trouble.” He closed his eyes and focused his thoughts. Grace, can you join us? We need another swimmer out here, to help D-Stract.”
Grace: Sure thing. I’m on my way.
Maude: Sounds like fun, let’s go!
Rufus: Hold on. I need you to go around to the apothecary and get a bottle of that ink emulsion Dahlia is putting together.
Grace: Will do. Wait for us.
Rip arrived, paddling on his board through the grasses, with a basket half full of eggs balanced in the middle. He went to stow them in the hut, giving Crystal a brief kiss as he passed. As he came back out he stood with an arm around her and looked the others over. “Crystal, you needed me?”
Crystal nodded. “Rufus here wanted to talk. I’m loaning him a clam spade.”
Rufus stepped forward, clapped his shoulder, and shook his hand. “And we’re very grateful. Very grateful. You see, we are trying to assess the extent of the sand deposit out there, at the point. It’s needed for road repair and a new glassworks the dwarves are building. What we need to know is just how much work it’s going to be pulling it all up – with minimum disruption to the local marine life, of course. I was hoping you could help us with your insights into the crab-men.”
Rip thought a moment. “Okay, sure. First thing: crabs are attracted by splash sounds. They just live for some small creature fallin’ inna water. So you gotta be real careful in every movement – dead silent. They patrol up and down the shore, at a particular depth. You can pretty much count on ‘em comin’ at ya from one of two points, up or down the shore. I can watch for them further out towards the middle of the lake.” He glanced at his new wife. “Crystal is pretty good at spottin’ things in the water, and knows what their ripple patterns look like. She can watch the other side for ya.” He stooped over and got several short pieces of driftwood from a pile by the hut. “If we see anything comin’, we’ll throw these in the water further along, and try to get ‘em to turn ‘round. Oh, and iffin one tries to grab you, poke at its face. It’ll try to pull into its shell by reflex.”
D-Stract smiled at him. “That will be a big help. Thanks so much.”
Grace sprinted up, handed Rufus a bottle, then leaned over gripped her knees and sucked in noisy breath after breath.
Rufus muttered again. “Gotta change it up, gotta change it up.” He opened his eyes. “D-Stract, reconnoitering the sand is secondary. The main thing is to practice with the shark-tooth amulet and get a feel for this water-breathing thing. That might be harder than Sapphire thinks.”
D-Stract nodded. “Yeah. I’m getting a bit of a feel for Water, but I’ve no idea all the things I can do with it. My reflex from years of swimming is to just hold my breath.”
“The sand can wait. We have a limited window on learning from these artifacts.” He turned to Grace. “You need to practice to, with the shell amulet.”
Grace stood straight and looked away. “No, actually I don’t.”
“Come on. Your help in the clinic is much appreciated, I’m sure, but you can’t spend all of your time changing sheets. We need you out here with us…”
“What I’m saying is, I don’t need practice. It came back to me yesterday, meditating with a candle. And I confirmed it later, up at the dam. The way the Pagans introduced me to Fire was with fire walking. It’s all a matter of attitude. ‘Be the flame’ and it can’t hurt you. Water breathing is the same thing. Embrace it, suck life energy from the water, and it can’t hurt you.”
Rufus stared at her. “Did you talk to Sapphire about this?”
Grace blushed. “Yeah, I told her. It was my idea.”
“Why didn’t you say anything this morning…”
“What? And get in the middle of an argument between you two? Not a chance.”
Rufus shook his head and looked at the ground. “ ‘Be the flame’. Be the spark, I suppose, too.” He looked up. “Fine, let’s go.”
They went out to the end of the peninsula, where the Buccaneer had been stranded. Rufus muttered again. “Gotta change it up, gotta change it up.” He looked up. “Ladies, I’m not sure how to put this gently. The premium has got to be on maneuverability and your ability to outswim the crabs. Your heavy equipment should stay here. And, um…you should, um…”
D-Stract laughed. “You think we ought to peel down. No problem.” She dropped her weapons and removed each garment one at a time, making a burlesque show of it while delighting in embarrassing Rufus. She was left with just a light linen shirt that fell to her mid thigh. Grace followed suit more modestly. Maude was unusually silent. Crystal had given Rip a nudge with her elbow halfway into the performance and the two of them were now stationed one each up and down the shore.
Rufus looked at the heavens. “Cleo, Grace ought to have a line too.”
Grace shook her head. “Not on your life. I’m going to enjoy this swim, and if a crab comes around, I’ll boil it in place and we’ll have crab for dinner.”
Rufus looked back at them, and held out Dahlia’s bottle. “Here. You two should douse your, ah… clothes with this stuff.”
Grinning, D-Stract grabbed the bottle and poured the liquid down her front. The thin linen became virtually transparent, as it clung to her every curve. Rufus rolled his eyes and turned around.
Grace took the bottle and doused herself front and back. She grabbed D-Stract’s hand and pulled her towards the water as Cleo played out the line. “Now come on in here, D-Stract, and sit. Let the water wash over your arms and body. Get the feel of it; enjoy it. Now we scoot out a little deeper. Feel it around your throat and chin. You can draw energy in from it directly. Feel that? You’re still in air, but you don’t need to breath. Close your mouth. Try it with the shark tooth, and then try it yourself. You don’t have to go under yet, just breath in the energy…”
Rufus watched the waters anxiously. He frowned at Cleo, who was holding the line around D-Stract loosely, playing it out with both hands. “Where’s your bow?”
She shrugged. “My arrows might not be much use against those shells.”
Rufus took a deep breath. “Well, I do feel much better about this now. This is gonna work. But how am I going to practice being at ease around lightning? I’m going to be the last one to get it right.”
Cleo frowned. “That’s air magic, isn’t it? Sapphire is the other one that does air magic, isn’t she? When she gets back out of the barrens, you’ll just have to ask her to help you.”
“And that’s what I’m most afraid of now.”
Cleo chuckled and looked out over the water. The ladies were now completely submerged, and moving deeper.
Rufus smiled. “This is gonna work.”
It was a group of three crab-men that approached the beach, from the base of the peninsula, an hour later. Crystal threw her driftwood past them into the water, but only one turned back to chase the splashes. She turned and ran towards the beach but her furred boots found poor footing in the unfamiliar tufts of marshy grass. Quickly she was outpaced as she became mired in the mud. She yelled and waved her arms.
Cleo heard her and swung that way in alarm. She gave the rope a yank, breaking D-Stract’s concentration and causing her to gulp a lung-full of water.
Rufus yelled, then focused his mind on a message. Get out of the water, now!
Cleo hauled in the line and D-Stract toppled over. Coughing and sputtering under the water, she was dragged on her back through the sand. The two remaining crabs split up, one heading towards each lady.
Grace only saw the crab converging on D-Stract, and chased after her through the water. The crab pounced before she got to the shore, but D-Stract kicked it square in the face. It folded up into its shell and was swept away by the current, out towards the middle of the lake.
The last crab was thus behind Grace, following her towards the shore. The first she knew of it was when her shirt was grabbed from behind. She tried to twist around frantically. The shirt held her, then ripped. She found herself nearly face-to-face with the last crab-man, fighting to free its claws from the shreds of linen, which were now emitting a dark cloud of squid ink.
Maude’s voice squealed. Do something, quick!
Grace pointed at the crab and shouted, “Agni Incindio!” The words bubbled strangely under the water.
Poor Spamwich was annoyed that there were so few people in the inn that night interested in his curried goat with shallots, mushrooms, and cheese curd, over a bed of lettuce wilted in butter.
They feasted on boiled crab instead, to Cleo’s delight.
The sun was setting over the hills, west beyond the burnt barrens. A lone fire burned as the waiting continued long into the dark and starry night. It was just a couple hours before dawn when the thin crescent of the moon rose in the east, and shadows began to move around the hills.