This is a world in which gods and mortals meet. It is a place in which Faerie Stories and Tall Tales are true. It is a place where every god ever prayed to spoke back, and every demon ever feared stalked through the darkness, creeping ever closer to their unwitting victims.
The first book of the Tales Misforgotten trilogy: The Unshorn Thread is now available in the Amazon Kindle Store! The price is set at just $2.99, and the book is also available for free borrowing through the Amazon Prime Lending Library program.
Update: Paperback copies of The Unshorn Thread are now available on Amazon.com! Copies cost a paltry $12.99 each, so get 'em while they're hot!
The Unshorn Thread, part one of the Tales Misforgotten trilogy, is a tale of Merlin and his charge Arthur, the boy who would be king. Though their tale may seem familiar, The Unshorn Thread guides us quickly down unmarked paths and into new surroundings. Through the lens of Merlin and Arthur, we are told stories which span millennia — from Ancient Greece to the Steampunk future of American Reconstruction in the 1870s.
Want to know more about the book before buying your copy? Read the first chapter Here!
Want even more free content? Check out the short stories "Eyes" and "The Night Before"! Each of these leads up to the very beginning of The Unshorn Thread and is hosted here exclusively. They won't even be appearing in the book!
I've got another small project to share with you today as the final editing and formatting process for The Unshorn Thread continues. I wrote this one in celebration of a friend's video game project: Flight Rising. The game has been in development for quite a while and looks both fun and dazzlingly beautiful. The game is based on the raising of your own flight of dragons. The lore of the game is also fairly layered and interesting. There are a number of dragon deities for instance. It is this group of deities that inspired me to write my little story "The Discordant Assemblage". The story is told as a series of vignettes, each of which showcases a different one of these dragon gods. All images used in this post are original work, done by members of the Flight Rising team. Here's a link if you'd like more info on Flight Rising.
And here's my homage to the hard work of the Flight Rising Team:
The Discordant Assemblage
The Tidelord awoke with a start. His eyes darted about in the silty murk. Something was amiss upon the current. He could not place a talon upon precisely what it was, and this disconcerted him. As always he had this day kept a weather eye upon the shiftings of the sands and the tugging of the innumerable tidal eddies that whispered of events both past and yet to be. He had not slept long. Yet now, at his waking, it was as if all the sea had gone wild. The sands bubbled and frothed as if dredging themselves for plunder. The eddies, rather than winding their own paths across the sea, pulled and pushed in unison like the beating of a drowned heart.
It unsettled him. So attuned was The Tidelord to the whispers of the sea that little ever happened below the waves which he had not expected. Yet here, before his very snout and everywhere else he could sense, was an event he had not foretold. A shiver ran across his gills, enticing him to stand. He did so rapidly, violently churning up the waters of the cave he had selected to bed down within for the afternoon. Silt spun and coursed about the tight space, obscuring The Tidelord’s view of the sea. Flecks of gold dust and mother of pearl whirled about before his eyes. Their properties as conductors of the wisdom of the sea had been what had drawn him to this resting place, yet now — even flung before his all-gleaning eyes — they remained silent.
The Tidelord roared with the indignity of their silence. His voice buffeted about the cave and went pulsing out across the sea. His eyes shone a fierce cobalt blue, lending his gaze the ability to cut through the silt and the muck which bubbled up from the seabed. With one mighty stroke of his wings, he swam free of the cave, and there beheld yet another unnerving sight. All along the seabed, erupting from beneath the shifting sands, were hundreds of lost treasures. In his immediate vicinity, the Tidelord could see an exquisite marble statue, a cache of very large and pearl-pregnant oysters and even the scrying glass he had known to be hidden somewhere in these sands.
It tore at him, the strange migratory feeling. The caves of his brethren were perfect, had stood perfect for millennia. There was no place better, and The Earthshaker knew it... and yet. Yet here it was, this strange itching beneath his stone skin, impossible to nurse and ever growing. He swapped corners of the great hall, one for the next, yet nothing provided comfort. A sigh like an avalanche rumbled up from his belly.
He had never felt this way before. Even during the long-lost years of his youth, The Earthshaker had dug in, had preferred to gain the most intimate knowledge of every stone and gem in the labyrinthine mine below the great hall. Rather that than seeking a shortened life out in the wild and untamed world beyond the shrine of the Pillar. And yet...
But no, for now he had hit upon it in earnest. The Pillar of the World was his to guard, and his alone. He gazed along the grand court of Dragonhome, finding in an instant the beatific shape of the Pillar. ‘What would mother say?’ he mused to himself, smiling at the thought. He had not remembered his mother for aeons, and yet here she was upon his mind. ‘Truly this feeling of unsettledness must be a horrendous notion to evoke her memory,’ he thought. What would The Earthmother say to this wanton disregard for home and hearth and duty? ‘I must have grown too long in the moss to even entertain the idea,’ he assured himself.
And yet... here he stood: the final guard of all the first. Mother had gone, and the rest of his brood as well. The second breed was naught to those of his ilk, and they could no more defend the Pillar than they could cease squabbling amongst their own flight. Yet had it not been the way of the first brood to sojourn in their centuries after their weaning from The Earthmother? And had The Earthshaker not foregone this rite, the better to know the Pillar and its locale? He shifted his great weight once more, finding no relief.
It tugged at him, this unknown commodity, which he had so recently purchased at the cost of his own solace. ‘The Pillar has stood since time immemorial,’ it whispered to him. ‘It can stand alone for what scant few hours you leave it.’
“I cannot abandon the Pillar!” he said aloud, his cavernous and ill-practiced voice caroming across the great hall. He expelled a dry and haughty sigh, letting his massive head thunder down against the floor of the hall, the impact of this adding to the echoes of his voice which could now be heard reverberating like a tidal surge against the stalactites and endless causeways of the caverns below his chamber. He listened as the sound slowly began to die away, listened for the silence that cohabitated with him, which defined his natural environ.
Yet the silence did not come. If anything the surging sound that he had taken for echo seemed to be growing. Had his voice awakened some denizen of the deep caverns? He knew of no creature which dwelled in the earth which made such a sound. And he knew every denizen of the under-earth by name and voice.
The Earthshaker listened closer. ‘What is this new sound?’ he wondered. ‘First I am gripped by a sensation both alien to my nature and my way of living, and now the unknown rises to greet me from the very place I know best in the world? It is a strange day indeed.’
The thought suddenly struck him that the exploration of his own labyrinthine den would not necessitate his leaving the Pillar unattended, that it might too provide the discovery and movement his stony frame itched to take up. The Earthshaker stood. He sounded his intent to whatever it was that rumbled and tumbled and swelled in the deep places of the earth.
“The Earthshaker comes!” he bellowed. “Let all that lurk in the deep places of the earth kowtow to their lord, for I am among them this day!”
A smile cracked across his cheek, and The Earthshaker delved into the darkness, his eyes smoldering with a glee he had not felt in many an age.
Ah, here it is! No... no that is a lovely tome but not the right one. A pity. There are ever so many interesting scrawlings in that one. That last bit went less smoothly than I thought it would. But then, this is a very volatile — no, I’ll say exciting — a very exciting bit of work. I doubt anyone’s truly completed it in the last thousand years. Oh! What a charming thought. To be the first in a millennium! Oh, they’ll envy me from the four corners of the realm... that is if I pull it off. I’ll go from my notes until I find the damn book. There aren’t many places left to look after all! Let’s see here... Oh. This bit is simple as catching a canary and baking it in a pie! Notes will suffice for this! Oh, it’ll be fine! I do wish I’d written anything about the following step though. I’ve plum forgotten all about the specifics. Oh well... spilt milk, and not worth crying over the death of the cow, as they say.Do they say that? Well, something like it anyway...
“Something is wrong in The Green,” thought The Gladekeeper. “There is a tinny taste to the soil and a fell damp to the air.” It left a lingering flavor in the veins of her roots, one she did not deign nourishing. She expelled three short bursts of spore from her uppermost branches, sending the little bits of life out to see what there was to be caught along the breezes. They would return shortly with news of the air and the sky.
The Gladekeeper would not be idle as she awaited their return. She walked silently to the banks of The Source. Tiny aromatic bubbles rose from the depths of the well, releasing long-captured nutrients back into The Green. The Gladekeeper dipped her toes into The Source, allowing her claws to sink deep into the silty bank. Her roots stretched down and down into the fertile soil. Here there was no tinny corruption, and here she could see far into the earth’s deep heart. Her roots wound and gathered the deep nutrients of The Source. Images poured into her mind.
In the past these visions would be of growth and of green, sapling and sage. Today, however, there were images of fracture and of fault, of heat unwanted and of blade. Her closed eyes darted about beneath the bark of her eyelids. One image seemed to surface most frequently. It was a storm without rain, a tremor without impetus. The Gladekeeper held this image in her mind as she drank from the deep water. Upon her shoulder, just above the waterline, began to grow a new stalk. It was warped and stretched, and gleamed with odd colors as it grew. A leaf, and then another unfurled from the twisted thing. They were deepest purple and orange like fire, and they singed her skin as they grew. A bud and then a flower popped up from between the leaves. The orchid opened its petals: long, stringy cords of maroon velvet. They were speckled with black and orange spots which seemed to engulf one another as they grew. The orchid’s maw was a wretched, stinking wound of a thing, bubbling forth with sulfuric pollen.
Ah! Here it is! The tome of The Sealshatterer! What a fine find it was, hidden in that stormy desert of a wasted plane. I veritably rescued it from an instantaneous destruction at the hand of those bothersome storms, and look at what it does for me in return! I shall be remembered by the flights of every realm for this. I shall shape the lands to my liking and reap their hidden bounty far more completely than even the first of our pristine order! And here at last I begin to be able to see the fruits of my labors. Now let’s see... AH! “Let the strait boil and the earth rise. Let the glades putrefy and the sky flow red with fiery aether! En Phobos annum, Aequitas et olethron!” Oh my! Oh, that IS tantalizing! I can feel it upon the back of my neck. The gravity of the starry sky draws great. It shall be soon!I wonder if I have tome to scrounge up a snack. Oh, that would make the moment perfect... what’s in the larder?
“Sir, we’ve got a net loss in sector beta-niner, please advise.”
“B9. Someone took our stuff in grid B9... sir.”
“Honestly, Stephens, I don’t know why I went and designed an alphanumeric grid if you’re just going to mess with the names, and did you seriously just say ‘niner’ in groupchat?”
“Sorry sir, but I really think...”
“And that’s another thing, Stephens: I have like... the coolest name ever and you’re just gonna call me ‘sir’? What kind of a wasted opportunity is that? Ok now try your alert again in proper procedure. We’ve had this chat system up for like... a week now. You gotta get used to doing it right or you’re gonna suck all the awesome out of it.”
“Ok, ok! Agent Stephens to Stormcatcher! We have a confirmed loss of archaic assets in grid... B9.”
“You sunk my battleship!”
“See... I knew! I knew you were gonna do that!”
“Hahahaha! Point for Stormcatcher!”
“Dude! Can you just pull up your map and look at what grid I’m reporting? For like a minute?”
“Stephens, your new code name is killjoy. Now seriously what can be so... aww, $#!+. You said B9, didn’t you.”
“Ohmygod! Dude! This is so not the time to screw around! Do you know what we were keeping in grid B9?!”
“Um, yeah. That’s why I called it in. Way bigger deal than the crackers Gregory’s been pilfering from the pantry, you know?”
“He’s been WHAT?!”
“Sir, er, Stormcatcher. Grid B9!”
Oh. My. We still have Rambra loin in here. Score one for papa Arcanist! Ok, now back to the show. I can already hear the magnetosphere sundering. I wish I had fire breath. Flamecaller gets all the convenience abilities. Oh well. Raw Rambra loin it is. Time for a bit of geoscrying to see how the core elements are doing. With luck they’ll have risen another thousand feet.
Hello. What’s this? Wow, is that ever a power spike. And it has a sort of a rhythmic pulse to it. Could it be alive? Wow, I wonder if I woke something up from way down there. If I did, and if it’s angry, whatever flights are down there are in for a world of hurt. Geez, it’s still rising! As if the thing is... wait. Swapping to perpendicular swipes at the scrying glass might... no! He never leaves home! How the... but that would leave the Pillar unguarded. And that would be entirely interesting if I wasn’t doing something ridiculously important!Why would The Earthshaker be here? Ugh. He’ll be here to mess with my magicks, I just know it. Good thing he’s the... oh, COME ON!”
The water was too warm, even for the surface. The Tidelord did not like others disturbing his domain, especially those who did not come close enough for him to eat them in retribution. He burst forth from the sea, carrying with him a torrent of whitewater. The sky above the waves glowed a deep and lustrous violet. The Tidelord was not sure, but this struck him as irregular. Circular arcs of cloud wove in and out of one another, whirling in concentric arcs above his head. In their center was visible something that looked like a very large or very close star. This he knew was wrong. As he began to crash back to the sea, he spotted the offender. High amongst the clouds, sitting upon a floating bit of earth, was The Arcanist, a scrying sphere in his claws.
Just before he sank back into the sea, The Tidelord let out a piercing scream. So directed and violent was it, that the last thing The Tidelord saw before he was back in the world below the waves was the shattering of The Arcanist’s sphere.
The Tidelord circled about, hoping that his first volley had enraged the interloper enough to incite a frontal attack. He welcomed the challenge.
That crazy buffoon! Now how am I to control the impacts? Oh, I hate him.
— “I hate you, do you hear me?!”
The Earthshaker emerged from the newfound exit of his labyrinthine cave to a sight like nothing he had beheld before. The waves of the northern channel swirled and bubbled, and beneath them could be seen the leathery wings of The Tidelord. Above he could see the wiry frame of The Arcanist, shaking his frail fists in what appeared to be a shade of pink anger.
This much was no great surprise, but the rest of the atmosphere was worrisome. The Pillar of the World gave of radiating waves of energy, the pulse of the earth he had come to call it, but the air here was crisp with a dangerous current, as if the very air might explode at any moment.
There was a sense of earth here too, but not the true earth. It was a foreign earth and carried with it a deadly rumbling. The Earthshaker looked up to the heavens, searching for the source. The thing that he saw was like to the harbinger of the end days: a giant whirling, burning mountain of immense density and destructive power. It was just like the stone that had brought about the end of the first age, Phobos. But Phobos had already fallen, there was no way that it could be called from the heavens again... and yet...
‘If that truly is Phobos, I must stop this madness,’ The Earthshaker thought to himself. ‘But what can I do, here upon the shore and so far below the fall of the end-bringing stone?
The Gladekeeper stepped lightly out from the edge of the Viridian Labyrinth. She had known what it was she would behold since her spores had told her, but to truly behold such an unnatural, wicked happening as this... it took her aback to see. The Arcanist was at fault here, she knew that, and so she found him out at once. He was floating high above the earth, upon a mountain in the sky. Her eyes glowed bright and she began to shape her leaves for flight. She would eat The Arcanist this day and rid the world of his blighted unnatural existence once and for all. Just as she had prepped her leaves, widening and strengthening them, for flight, a voice stammered to life beside her.
“E-excuse me, ma’am,” it said. “I have never spoken to another such as I, and I can sense that you are somehow altered in form from myself, yet you may be nigh as ancient a being as myself. In the spirit of whatever kindred nature there lies between us, I ask you for your aid.”
“Did... you just call me ancient?” The Gladekeeper knew she was a great and well-cultivated being, but to be called ancient was overstepping a bit, she thought.
When she turned to behold the creature that beheld her, she was shocked to have to crane her neck upward. Nothing living, save for the Viridian Mother-tree of The Green, stood taller than herself. And yet this creature, this stonework dragon-god stood a good thirty feet taller than she.
“You...” she gasped, “you must be The Earthshaker, the oldest of our ilk. Yet I was ever told that none had ever seen you leave your throne beside the Pillar of the World. What is it that you are doing here?”
“I am indeed The Earthshaker,” he replied, “and I would ask you the favor of delaying your assault upon The Arcanist a moment — that is what you were planning on doing, is it not?”
“It is,” she replied, “and believe me, there is no creature more in need of my wrath this day.”
“I agree with you,” rumbled the voice of The Earthshaker, “but if you turn your eyes skyward, you shall see that he has somehow conjured or created the Phobos stone high in the sky. I believe he wishes to destroy this place, or at least to rip it asunder for some private reason of his own. I believe I can stop this event, but I would need to commune with Phobos directly, and for that I shall need to be closer.”
“You do not expect me to carry you upon my back into the heavens, do you?” asked The Gladekeeper.
“I do not know if that is within your power,” said The Earthshaker, “but I must commune with Phobos. What solution can you give me?”
The Gladekeeper thought for a moment. Then, digging her roots into the earth, she began a rumbling chanting, her eyes closed in meditation.
Three?! There are three of them down there now?! I didn’t even see the Gladekeeper coming without scrying. I’ll need to mount defenses. Oh, that I still had my scrying sphere. I hate that Tidelord, I hate him! Well... what’s done is done. What other manner of defenses can I mount?
Ow! What the hellfire was —
“Lightning PUNCH! Oh, that was epic! I floored him! Stephens, log the Lighting Extendo-Gloves as officially awesome in the ledgers.”
“Sir, that’s not the official shorthand for...”
“Dude — buzzkill — write the word awesome in the ledger, ok? I just totally bushwhacked The Arcanist. I think he’s out cold! These things OWN!”
“What did you just call me?”
“Uh... Affirmative... your holy lordship?”
“Did you for reals forget my name again?!”
“Oh! Nope. Nope, I did not.”
“buzzkill... what’s my name, B%#&@?”
“YEAH it is! Hells yeah! Now where’s my stolen bookie-wook?”
Root and vine rose like massive arms from the earth. The roots grew and grew until they were as strong as steel and as wide as the Pillar of the World itself. Vine wrapped and knotted and braided its way about the roots, forming a grand and elastic mesh. When the mesh was complete, The Gladekeeper motioned for The Earthshaker to get in. Then, with all her might she stretched the vines to their utmost and flung the great stone dragon-god into the sky.
‘I wonder if he’ll shatter upon impact,’ she thought. ‘Ah well, it serves him right for calling me ancient. Why, in the wide world of adjectives, he went with ancient is beyond me. Seasoned maybe, or primal... venerable even.’
She did not wait to see the impact.
The Earthshaker realized quickly the folly of his plan. He had neglected to tell The Gladekeeper how close he had needed to get, and so she, likely out of an over-abundance of care, had shot him directly at the Phobos stone. Communing would take a few minutes, after which he would be able to impose his will upon the stone. Rock was rock, after all, no matter how foreign.
This was all a moot point, however, for he would collide with Phobos far before he would be able to commune with the stone. This left him with one decidedly indelicate way of dealing with the Phobos stone. He lowered his head, and gritted his marble teeth. This was likely going to smart.
The impact was violent beyond his reckoning. For a moment he felt as if he had been the one to shatter. The sensation of rock crumbling away against his limbs and head was like being ripped apart. Phobos was one hell of a dense stone.
When The Earthshaker emerged from the far side of Phobos he was whole, but delirious. He had chipped here and there, but the end-bringer was shattered. As he fell back to earth, The Earthshaker smiled, and then promptly lost consciousness.
He awoke drenched in saltwater. Beside him upon the land stood The Tidelord. A hissing, drowned voice greeted his still-pounding ears.
“Thisss once the ssssea has risen to sssave the earth,” said The Tidelord. “Recompensssse has been paid. If the earth or its treasures descend into the depthsss again, the ssssea shall sssswallow them whole. The earth hasss been warned.”
The Arcanist awoke alone upon his floating isle. The sky was clear and the stone was gone from the heavens. His scrying globe lay in pieces, the tome was gone, and he had a raging headache. His place in eternal memory, it seemed, had been stolen away this day.
‘There are many more books,’ he consoled himself, ‘and many days yet before the end-times to make my mark.’
He would return to the watchtower for the day, bury his nose in another tome for the night, and rise again on the indigo wings of knowledge in the morning.
*Looks like this post is in need of an update! Airship Downs is currently funding on indiegogo.com after a couple of months solid hard work from our team. Check out the link above if you want to see how far this game has come from this initial story.
Early Spring, 1844 –
If I am humble, I must admit that my inventions thus far may only place me on par with Ford – an American of some manufacturing sense. However I see a turning point in my creations upon the ever-brightening horizon and – but I should not begin with that, for it is the lattermost portion of my tale! I should by all rights begin at the beginning, should I not? Yes, I believe I should, for that is how most journals are chronicled and I would not want to miss my chance of great historical significance on some technicality of documentation. No, that would not do at all.
I shall begin at the beginning. I believe the impulse for exploration caught hold in my mind some time in the Autumn of 1843. I was out of the city, residing in my country home in Ipswich. I find that the intellectual company in Ipswich to be the finest distillation of what London has to offer, without all of the strutting about before one another like gaggles of hen-less ganders. Why only a few years prior to my departure I had the honor of meeting a Mr. Dickens over a pint of Tolly Cobbold porter. I daresay that man can be long-winded at times – it was a shock to discover the brevity of his writing after our chatting on into the night. As I ruminate upon the subject, I begin to think that this has more to do with some editor or another than Mr. Dickens himself... but I have gotten away from the matter at hand.
Ah, yes: It was the Autumn of 1843 and I had just engaged the employ of a new research assistant. Her name was Clara and she had quite the impressive pedigree, in both the arenas of Academia and breeding. It had been a fortnight since I had engaged her and I had not yet seen hide nor tail of her. I allowed some of this lateness to be accounted for by my asking her to come to the country, for she had until recently been engaged by her stepfather, a Dr. Roylott if I recall correctly, in the city. I gave her a day or two extra, by my own estimation, before allowing doubt to creep into my mind. ‘A woman assistant,’ I thought. ‘And a city girl on top of that. Whatever was I thinking?’
Well, thankfully this line of doubtful thought was a short-lived one, for I admit it proved to be the absolute furthest thing from the truth. Upon the day Clara came into my life I had begun working on a new draft of an old idea of mine: the clockwork submersible vehicle. I was buried in thought most of the afternoon. The problem, you see was in miniaturizing the cranking mechanism to the right scale so as to be useable by a crew inside the contraption – without either filling the vehicle up with its own girth or, conversely, requiring constant cranking. I had nearly cracked the ratio when there came the sound of rapid hooves above my head, followed by a resounding pair of thuds. The noise confounded me to a great degree, for I was at my basement table at the time, which is situated below the home’s reading room.
I was alone at home, having sent Stephens out for new leathers and some bronzed steel plating earlier that day. I knew it could not be he that had made such a clatter, for he was as quiet as a church mouse when at home and as penny-pinching as the vicar himself when at market. I ascended the stair, a copper tube in hand, expecting burglars.
The sight that greeted my eyes was so shocking, so wonderful and transforming, that can scarcely imagine the day that I forget its smallest detail. In my study stood a stunning woman, her raven-colored hair flowing in tight curls over her shoulders. Her riding coat and breeches were covered in soot and her boots bore the mudded marks of a hard day’s ride. At her feet were two large galvanized coal buckets. One was fairly empty and the other – oh the sight! The other had the bony face of her steed buried in it! The horse, for it had at least started as such a beast, was all bone and gears and piping. Its bony jaws chomped away at the coal, conveying easy portions to the iron furnace which had been affixed where the creature’s belly once had been. Gurglings and the pingings of expanding and contracting pipes filled the air with a steely music, and every now and again the beast would expel little wisps of steam from its bony nostrils. It was magnificent.
Clara strode forward and offered me her hand. “I do apologize for my delay, Professor Brown,” she said, “but I could not see coming to your home without my strongest credential between my legs.”
I flushed an impossible shade of crimson at such a greeting, gawked at the lady, and then at the horse, and then again at the lady. I believe all I could come up with in reply was something like “It – it’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, actually.” I reached out my hand to greet her and ended up handing her the bit of copper piping instead. You see, I had forgotten I was holding it and so extended it to her in some sort of awkwardly ritualistic manner rather than giving her my hand.
She took it and smiled. Ah, what a romance was to follow! I scarcely believe that putting it to writing would do the thing justice. Perhaps if I were Mr. Dickens himself... but alas I am not. I shall have to let it suffice to tell you that my dear Clara instilled the concept of embarking upon a grand expedition in me that very first night. It was not so much anything she said, but more her devil may care attitude. I shall not mention how alluring she looked, half-covered in mud, for it was only a small secondary consideration, I assure you.
Weeks later she would give the idea voice as well. We were maintaining a hydroponic capsule one afternoon, I believe. “Have you ever heard of the sacred valleys of the Himalayas?” she asked out of the clear blue sky. I had, of course, and we went on in an excited back-and-forth exchange. Both of us wished we had been the first to locate those amazing, lush valleys so high in the snowy peaks. What marvels must the first explorers have seen? What unique perspectives they must have gleaned on the monks who lived there undisturbed?
Hah! I shall tell you right away that it captured both our imaginations. We began designing the airship over a brandy nightcap that very night. I do not believe we were able to stop until well into the morning! The months that followed were abuzz with the same sort of energy, interrupted only briefly by my proposal of marriage to Clara. She did me the absolute kindness of accepting my proposal, and then it was back to planning! We hoarded supplies, acquired a lovely sloop, and set about the lovely business of planning our destination. Maps covered all of the tables in the house and many of the chairs as well, sometimes three or four deep. We mused about forging into the heart of the African continent, exploring the sulfuric pits of Iceland, or perhaps discovering what secrets there were to dig up from the sunken cenotes of the Yucatan.
All of these were ideas of merit, and we had nearly settled upon the cenotes – myself even going so far as to purchase some glass bells and tubing for the expedition – when the oddest thing happened. Some time during the night of the eve of our departure there came a clatter and a bang from the observatory. As the observatory was directly above my dressing room, the noise easily roused me from my brandy-induced slumber. I stumbled out of bed, grabbed the blunderbuss, and climbed the spiral stair. What looked like a small stone had crashed through the window, scattering shards of detritus all over the floor. There was no sign of an intruder, even in the garden below. Returning my gaze to the room, I noticed that Clara had awakened as well. She stood in the doorway, her nightgown bright in the moonlight. In her hands she held a wrench of the sort that might do quite a bit of harm if need should arise. And, though she looked disturbed, it was not at me or the broken window which she gazed, but the floor. I followed her line of sight and discovered the second shock of the night. The stone which had come crashing through the window had righted itself and begun to scoot along the floorboards. Closer inspection seeming warranted, I bent down and discovered that the thing was not a rock at all, but a very barnacled and unique form of snail. There was no scent of the sea to the creature, yet I could not help but think of its having to have lived there. I plucked it from the floor, not wishing it to go forgotten and thus become a slimy mess of a missed opportunity. I turned to place it upon my desk – and nearly startled myself out of my breeches. I held onto the snail, but only just. There, upon my desk, was a long and ornate wooden box. It had a bronze clasp at its middle and a series of hinges along the sides. The clasp was shut, but no lock held it tight. Instead there was tied through the clasp a marsh thistle: a strange and exotic flower which I am sure I needn’t inform you is in no way native to the British Isles.
Clara shot me a look of warning as I approached the box, one which I did not heed. I took up a small blade and carefully sliced through the knotted stem of the flower. Judging by the dryness of the stem, the flower had been tied to the clasp for quite some time. Excitement overcame me and with giddy fingers I flipped open top of the box. Inside there was rolled a large and very old piece of vellum. I gasped and beckoned Clara to my side. Her eyes poured over the ancient bit of flesh-made-paper. “A map?” she asked, voicing the suspicion which I had myself been harboring. The few markings which had bled through the vellum over the years looked to my eye suspiciously like mountain ranges, you see.
I shot her a confirming glance before gingerly removing the map from its box. I had not oft handled vellum before that night and I must say that the stuff is remarkably weighty for a form of paper. In my estimation it is this weight which lends the almost preternatural sense of importance to anything scrawled upon the substance. That night I was ill-prepared for the sense of discovery and importance that came over me upon my unfurling that document.
It was indeed a map. Clara and I pondered it in the moonlit observatory for what could have been eons, so fascinated were we. It depicted an expansive valley, bordered on the one side by what I can only describe as an inland sea, the term lake not seeming to suffice in the slightest. It was I who determined that the map was a gift from on high, a sign from above defining our destination. It was Clara who determined it’s location by correctly identifying the Hovsgol Nuur, a lake supposed to have strange and mystical properties, and itself entirely remote, at the bottom of the map. Ah – would that one of the two of us had not done so...
The strange thing to me was that the map seemed to be drawn to scale, but that the Hovsgol Nuur was so small. I had heard rumors that the Nuur was so large as to account for all the waters which Noah had seen fall in the biblical flood. To believe this map was to believe that a “lake” might exist which would dwarf to the point of superfluity such a body of water. And in farthest Mongolia no less! That thought, added to the strangeness of the map’s delivery unto us put any concept of visiting the cenotes of the Yucatan entirely out of my mind. We departed a week later, having planned a luxurious resupply route across Eastern Europe.
We stocked up on the finest Belgian beers, Swiss cheeses, Swedish metallurgical tools, and cured Polish meats. We of course brought our own tea and biscuits from Britain. And so, having left Poland in our aviatorial wake, we settled in for a long and relaxing journey east. For the most part it was exactly as we had hoped. We dropped in upon small Russian settlements when we passed them, avoided thunderheads, and stoked the fire when snow flurries descended upon us. It was the ideal intrepid honeymoon.
We had almost arrived at what we thought were the correct latitude and longitude when unthinkable disaster struck. A gale the like that could skin a cow before the beast was aware of it descended upon us in the wee hours of the morning. Clara and I manned the rigging and the engine, but to no avail. I heartily believe that not even Phileas Fogg himself could have kept an airship aloft in such a dire storm. The airship spun as it fell, flinging our precious cargo from the deck in all manner of directions. I am still struck to the core every time that I think of the moment that my dear sweet and adventurous Clara was flung from the rigging and into the wild forest below. I soldiered on at the time, but had very little success. My greatest feat was wrecking the airship upon flat land, rather than shivering it to splinters against the trees. It has been nigh on a week since that crash and already all manner of strangeness has occurred here in the valley which I have taken to calling Airship Downs. It is a tongue-in-cheek name, as you have likely deduced. A bit of the old English humor there, to help me weather this new and already dangerous place with a stiff upper lip. Every night there are strange creakings and frightful vocalizations from the forest which borders the Downs. More on that in my next entry. Should I survive the night, that is. I do hope I have enough coal to run the furnace until morning. I shall make a note of having to collect fuel as one of my duties tomorrow.
Late Spring, 1844 –
Readers, I daresay it has been too long since my commencing of this journal. I had meant at its inception to update this account at regular intervals, rain or shine. Well. It has been weeks, I daresay, since I put pen to paper, and for that I assuredly I owe you, one and all, an apology.
But what venturesome weeks! The most placid of days here in Airship Downs is like to awakening to a troop of gypsies having moved into ones own bedchamber some time in the night. Almost hourly I am stirred from that which I have set myself to accomplishing on account of some dire need or other. But I am beginning to get ahead of myself.
You may recall that I had the good fortune of meeting Mr. Charles Dickens in the years prior to my departure to these wilds. The man had, even in the briefest of encounters, a dizzying wit and a nigh-incessant need for storytelling. It is with him fondly in mind that I shall endeavor to elucidate my own ventures both chronologically and with you, the reader, in mind.
Now, where did I leave off in the telling of my tale? Ah, yes! The crash. It truly seems as if aeons have passed since that turbulent and fateful day. I recall a shocked and shivering version of myself crawling about the sundered timbers and torn canvass of the airship in the moments after it struck ground. I recall calling out in ever intensifying fits of desperation for Clara. Only the settling of the wrecked airship was to answer me that night. I was utterly alone. My provisions and tools were buried within the belly of the wreck, and Clara was lost to me. I clung to the hope that she had somehow survived the fall from the deck of the airship, but such hope was a fleeting companion as the black of night slowly enveloped me, carrying my thoughts into the realm of Morpheus and shaping my fearful shuddering into long, deep breaths.
I awoke the next morning to light and, somehow, a renewed well of determination in the pit of my stomach. I can tell you that I drew heartily from that well during the long hours of that first day. Still I do not know how I did it, but in that day I pulled myself out of the doldrums of my own sadness and fear and set to righting the world around me as well. The airship itself provided great help in that regard, for in the light of day it showed itself to have survived the crash far better than it had seemed to have done in the pitch of darkness and despair. Upon venturing into the sundered belly of the thing, I discovered small caches of the food we had packed for our journey, as well as a single intact crate of coal. Better than either of these discoveries by far was the pulling free of my tool chest from beneath a beam. Its leather wrappings were fairly scuffed, but the interior metal drawers and, most importantly, the tools themselves were right as a summer’s day. With food in reach and fuel to provide me heat, I next set my eye upon shelter. Here again the airship, that ever-giving carcass of its former self, lent me aid. From the canvass of its balloons I fashioned a roof, and from its fallen timbers, a pair of walls. By any English standard it was lean-to, a shanty at best; and of these it was likely not the princeliest ever constructed. But it kept the wind and sun from my shoulders as I ate, and even did a fair enough job of keeping me out of the afternoon rain shower that burst down upon me without warning.
During the rain, as I was huddled in one of the least leaky corners of my lean-to I began to become aware of strange sounds coming from the dense forest that bordered my crash site. They were of a predominantly rumbling nature, punctuated by a high-pitched screech or a sharp pop here and there. In point of fact, they quite resembled the sounds I myself had been making while scavenging about in the airship. I entertained the idea for the fleetingest of instants that they might indeed be some sort of echo of my own rummagings, but quickly laughed off the idea. It was the first laugh I had enjoyed since Clara has slipped from the deck of the airship the night before, and I welcomed it heartily. Had I but known then the source of the strange far-off sounds, I mightn’t have laughed at all.
As it was, I merely noted them and waited out the rain. As I did so, growing more damp by the minute, I began to think that a more permanent dwelling would shortly be in order. To accomplish such a feat, I mused, fresh timber would be called for. Now that prospect truly was vexing. A single laborer, armed with only such small saws and cutting blades as were kept in the standard tool kit, was as likely to fell a copse of trees as he was to construct the Cathedral of St. Paul. Greater machinery would be needed.
Thus, once the rains had dwindled to a fine mist I re-entered the wrecked airship, this time with very grand plans indeed. I was hunting for the boilers themselves, those twin hulks of iron which had propelled Clara and myself from the shores of England and clear across the globe. Surely they would give me the power I sought. Yet I did not hold out great hope for their retrieval. The boilers had sat deep in the bow of the airship, in the very place which, likely due to their own great mass, had struck ground first.
The rear of the airship was held aloft a bit, the prow having burrowed into the soil upon impact. This, while boding ill for the boilers, at least gave me a path of ingress. I ducked my head as I passed the great, sundered blades of the rear propellers and rudder. The hull of the ship creaked treacherously as I ducked my head below it. Great big holes, large enough to easily crawl in and out of decorated this part of the hull like so many leopard spots. Ah! What a fantastic wreck it truly was. I clambered through one such cavity when the hull grew too low to the ground. I found myself crouched in what had once been the engine room, but the innards of the airship were in such a terrible state that I hardly recognized the place. Great big gears and belts of leather littered the compartment in great heaps. There was no engine left, least-wise not in any recognizable state. I shook my head in dismay at the sight and made to move on down into the belly of the craft. Yet, as I rummaged about in search of a viable path downward, a startling idea shot into my brain. I wheeled about on the spot, looking upon the bits of engine with fresh eyes. Yes, I thought, yes they would do in a pinch, wouldn’t they? I quickly threw a great belt of leather over my shoulder and took hold of one of the great big gears which littered the floor. It was too heavy for me, at least while the leather band was upon my shoulder. I selected a smaller gear and worked it up onto its teeth. Then, like a dirty great rat with a wheel of cheese I rolled my prize back out of the airship. Once outside, I dropped both the gear and the belt of leather onto the grass and climbed back into the engine room. There I kicked and pried and pulled at the great big gear until it too fell with a satisfying thud onto the ground.
These supplies obtained, I turned my attention to the next bit of work. Coffee. Well, not coffee itself, precisely, but rather the great big cast-iron coffee grinder I had procured when Clara and I had stopped over in Germany. The gentleman who had sold it to me had told me that it could grind a week’s worth of coffee in but an instant. What’s more, he told me, the thing was the height of convenience as it was affixed with four rubber castors for ease of mobility. I had purchased the thing from him almost immediately, only hesitating long enough to get him to throw two twenty-pound bags of coffee beans and a single-pound bag of seeds in on the deal. But again, it was not these that I was interested in right at the moment. Walking around to the front of the airship, I worked my way into the living cabins that Clara and I had shared during our voyage. There, lying atop the forlorn shambles of her steam-powered horse, I found the coffee grinder. I’ll be damned if the thing wasn’t still in perfect shape, right down to its four rubber castors! I heartily wished that the same could have been said about Clara’s horse. It was a ruin of a thing. Bits of bone and machinery had been crushed in its belly and its neck was dented and lurched at a most unnatural angle. I dare say the only joy the sight of the thing brought me was that it had not been a living beast. Still, I must admit to my eyes growing misty more than once as I removed the coffee grinder from atop the beast. I do not believe that I so much felt sorrow for the automaton itself, mind you, but for my dear sweet Clara. The horse had been her favorite creation and was a true marvel to behold. Its sorrowful state presented me too keen a sorrowful reminder of her so recent departure from my side. In but the work of an instant had she been ripped from me, and now lay before me here great inventive achievement, dashed to thousands of pieces. As had been our dreams of exploring this strange land together.
I did not stay in the cabins any longer than I had to, so acutely did I feel the loss of Clara there. I know my eyes were still misty as I brought the coffee grinder about to the aft of the wreck. No. I shall be honest with you, as this journal is meant to inform you of all of my feats and trials here in Airship Downs. And a trial that day truly was. I wept openly as I worked into the night. I threw myself into the task. I cared not any longer what the sounds in the forest had been. I cared not what wild beasts might find my hovel and tear me asunder. The only fires I lit were small torches, meant to illuminate my hands and the tools I held in them. On and on through the night I worked. I dared not sleep, I dared not stop to eat. I feared what emotions might come flooding into my mind if I let up.
It was near the breaking of day when I was finally made to stop. The job was done. The small jaws of the great iron coffee grinder had been pulled out like so many rotten teeth. In their place sat the two great heavy gears, their teeth now filed into viscous curved fangs, fit to cut even the stubbornest of oaks. The great big band of leather had been parted out and re-sewn to make a number of smaller iterations of itself. The largest of these hung loosely from the grinder’s arm. The contraption would work as it was, but I had built it to be fed by a boiler. A boiler I had yet to procure from within the belly of the ship.
Now that all my other work had been completed, the hefting of a great big iron boiler from deep within the bowels of the airship was all that I had left to do. What a thing to leave to last, for how was I to do it? The boiler was likely below-ground, if it was intact at all. It was assuredly heavier than any of the other bits of machinery that I had yet scavenged. My thoughts, as I had so rightly feared, led me back to the coal-fired steed and then to my lost Clara herself. The waves of sadness that I had kept at bay all through the night swept across me and I cried my laments aloud.
“Clara!” I wailed. “Why did you leave me? Why so soon after I found you have I been made alone again?!”
Like something from the world of Faerie, upon the wind came a reply. It was faint and far off, but unmistakable in form: the cry of a lady in distress. No, not just a lady: my lady! Somewhere, off in the black of the surrounding forest, Clara was alive! What’s more, she needed help.
Now, I am not by nature a man of action. I prefer my day-to-day existence to be one surrounded by books and fresh tea. But, I can tell you that on that day, in light of the prospect of regaining my Clara from the clutches of death, somewhere, deep inside my veins, righteous fervor took hold of me. I looked to the trees. They were thick and grown close together. Traveling through them on foot would be slow going and I would be as likely to get lost in their midst as to find Clara. My eyes flashed to my makeshift wood-mill. A more imposing foe never had a tree seen, I’ll wager. The thing was even fairly mobile, sitting as it did upon the coffee grinder’s castors. But it still needed a source of fuel.
Another cry rang out.
Necessity truly must be the mother of invention, for I shot back into the airship once more, reappearing with the tea kettle and an iron pot. The affixing of them to the wood-mill was rough work and strenuous, but I hardly felt it. After a moment I stood back from my handiwork. The kettle sat above the iron pot, and into the kettle’s lid I had fixed a metal rod. Once the kettle reached a good boil the lid would be forced up by the water pressure, creating a sort of a piston-like motion. This, through the motion of the leather bands and gears would work the mill’s teeth about. In a moment of sheer inspiration, I also affixed a band of leather to the edge of one of the castors, assuring that any forward motion of the machine would hasten the speed of the blades. Of course, this sort of mill needed constant maintenance in that it was in constant want of new coals and water. But, by Jove, it worked!
I turned the contraption in the direction of Clara’s cries, fed the kettle, lit the coals, and threw my shoulder against its back. The thing lurched forward, its blades beginning to whirl about in deadly arcs before me. I was off! Off to face the unknown and the assured dangers that it held! Off to find my Clara and free her from whosoever held her captive! On my way out of camp, I grabbed hold of a pail each of water and coal.
The grinding of the first tree went smoothly, and with its felling I entered the unknown.
At this point in my telling of the events that followed the crash of the airship and the subsequent founding of the little settlement we have dubbed Airship Downs, I find it prudent to relate to you the events which befell Clara during the days and hours that have already gone documented as they relate to myself. What I mean to say is: here is Clara’s tale, as she conveyed it to me.
All that she knew and cared for flew up and away from her at the strangest of angles. As she watched, her love, the life she had made for herself, her very legacy, winged its way heavenward. The raindrops hung beside her, static in space, as if to commemorate the great and terrible flight of the world that she knew. Like great and terrible caltrops, the pines thrust themselves up from behind her. She realized that she was screaming. Another voice, guttural and wild, joined her own upon the air, and then all was blackness.
When Clara awoke, the rain was falling again, no longer hanging static beside her. It fell upon her face and comingled with the tears that were running down her cheeks. All around her towered great big black trees. She sat up. Her head was alight with a buzzing, throbbing pain. Her body ached. ‘My god,’ she thought, ‘I fell! I fell right off the deck of the airship.’ It was no wonder that her head was pulsing and aching, no wonder that her body ached. In fact, it would not have shocked her at all if she had awakened standing before St. Peter at the pearly gate! That she was alive at all seemed impossible. It must have been an incredible fall.
And yet, here she sat, entirely well except for the most superficial of complaints. She made to stand and found that she was seated upon something fairly large and soft. It was this structure, whatever it was, which was responsible for saving her life. Stepping down from whatever it was, she took stock of herself. Truly, she was without any mark greater than the errant scratch or still-blooming bruise. She looked up at the heavens once more, this time feeling the rain upon her cheeks as if it were anointing her with the blessing of newfound life. She smiled and spun about.
She might even have laughed, but for the pain in her sides which flared up as she spun. “Ah!” she said, surprised by the pain. She doubled over with it, feeling about at her sides as she did so. “I’m mortal after all. That’ll be a cracked rib or two.”
A deep and resonant rumble of a groan filled the air about her. “You said it,” said Clara before considering what the sound meant. It did not take her long to make the realization, however.
Slowly she straightened herself, wincing as she did so. Before her sat the great soft lump upon which she had landed. It was heaving visibly, like some great, living gelatinous outcropping of mold. ‘No,’ she thought, ‘not like mold. Rather like a rug, instead. A great, fat bear rug.’
“Well, I’ll dance at Beilby's ball!” she said aloud, immediately regretting the outburst. For what might have happened, had she awakened the bear, for such was the creature, indeed. Clara strode around the beast, making sure to keep her skirts out of what she deemed the creature’s reach. It was a monstrous creature, larger than any she’d seen before. And that wasn't the worst of it. Stemming from the bear’s left shoulder and taking the place of his arm there hung a large and mechanized blunderbuss.
“Well, I’ll dance at Beilby's ball!” she said aloud, immediately regretting the outburst. For what might have happened, had she awakened the bear, for such was the creature, indeed. Clara strode around the beast, making sure to keep her skirts out of what she deemed the creature’s reach. It was a monstrous creature, larger than any she’d seen before. And that wasn't the worst of it. Stemming from the bear’s left shoulder and taking the place of his arm there hung a large and mechanized blunderbuss.
Clara spun in place, as if to find whoever it was that was playing this strangest of tricks upon her. Yet the forest remained as black and silent as it had ever been. She turned her attention back to the bear. The creature was a conundrum. For all intents and purposes, here was a dangerous creature made even more so. Yet, that the creature was equipped with a weapon must mean that it was able to fire the thing. That, in turn, denoted a high likelihood of intelligence.
The bear heaved a great big sigh and shook his head, though he did not wake. Clara knew that she would have to act before the beast came to his senses. She rummaged about in her skirts for a moment, and, finding that everything was in its right place, drew out her trusty wrench from its especially-crafted pocket. She set to her work right away, knowing how little time she had.
The bear awoke with a start. Its giant cranium swung about violently as it looked for its attacker. The last thing it had known, some great winged beast had swept down upon it. Something which, he was sure, had had the face of a human woman. ‘The Sirin!’ thought the bear. ‘I have been attacked by the Sirin of myth.’ Panic began to fill the belly of the bear, for the Sirin was a great owl with a woman’s head who preyed upon all manner of mortals. The bear cursed his own bad luck for having run into her.
It was just then that he noticed the small woman fumbling around at his side. ‘She is still here!’ he thought. Well, he would not let the Sirin simply consume him alive! No, not this bear! He reared up to his full height and bellowed, raising his blunderbuss arm toward the face of the demon-woman.
Three things happened then that the bear had not expected. The first was that his blunderbuss arm appeared to be entirely lacking in blunderbuss. This distressed the bear significantly. What distressed the creature more was that, only an instant after he had registered the lack of his weapon upon his arm, the self-same missing blunderbuss was hefted up and into the hands of little woman who stood before him, its broad muzzle a mere foot or two from his own. The third thing was that the bear had made these first two discoveries whilst still bellowing his attack call, and so instead of an imposing noise that might send even the Sirin running, he rather made something akin to a surprised yelp.
“GRRrrr-Ohauu- Uh-Oh!” he rumbled.
And with good reason, too. The bear had only enough time to call out before his own blunderbuss replied in kind. With a great Bang the gun went off, singeing his ear. As the smoke from the weapon’s blast cleared, the bear could see a wry smile upon the face of the Sirin, for that must be who she was. He did not wait around to see what she would do next. With a weak little grunt, he turned tail and ran through the forest, crashing and stumbling on his three good legs as he went.
Clara’s blood was up and, whether because of an overblown sense of preservation or having been swept up in the moment, she charged through the bracken after the bear. She reloaded the blunderbuss with nails and bolts, nuts and washers from her dress pockets. Finding a pair of fuse-lit blasting caps in her dress as well, she mashed them in behind the bits of metal, making sure that their fuses hung out onto the flash pan. ‘With a bit of luck,’ she thought, ‘I’ll have a fair few rounds of this scattershot stashed away in my pockets. That is, if the gun will fire at all.’
She wouldn’t have long to wait before finding out. The bear ahead of her, lumbering about as he was, was making all manner of crashings and thunderings as he forced his way through the dense forest. He was baying as he went as well, making as much noise as a bear can, which, incidentally, is quite a lot. Clara noticed, after a moment or two of his calling out, that there was sort of pattern to his calls. He would start each iteration with a series of three coughing, barking sounds and then follow these up with a pair of low, guttural growls. He finished his calls off with a thunderous whoof of a sound, and then the whole thing would start over again.
Clara had long been aware that animals were able to communicate with one another with differing calls. There were sounds for hunger, denoting territory, and for mating rituals, she recalled. Yet this bear, she mused, seemed to be trying to say something rather more complex than any of that. Surely a fearful animal wouldn’t have to resort to such an involved cry, merely to express its fear.
A call rang out from somewhere close in the forest. The bear Clara was chasing banked sharply toward the sound, shattering a small tree as it did so. Clara was right on its heels, dodging the twigs and branches which the bear kicked up. It was likely this proximity that hid the dire change in her situation from her until it was too late.
A small clearing popped into view, the bear skidding to a stop as he reached the far side of it. Clara burst through the tress just behind it and immediately wished that she hadn’t. The bear hadn’t been afraid, he’d been calling for reinforcements. There in the cramped little clearing stood two more bears, each equipped with the same arm-made-blunderbuss which she now carried in her arms.
“Oh, flay my cooler for a tuppence!” she shrieked.
The clearing was so small and the bears so large that whoever was to fire their weapon first would undoubtedly hit something. Clara decided, in light of such insight, it was better to be the shooter rather than the shootee. Dubbing the weaponless bear a lesser threat than the other two, she aimed at the closest of them and pulled the trigger. Somewhat miraculously, her blunderbuss discharged fantastically, sending every last nut and nail square into the chest of the beast. With a pitiful wail, the creature fell to the ground, never to rise again. The other two bears roared their outrage at Clara as she dove behind the corpse of her first target. The second bear fired as she dove. It was impossible to dodge the spread of the shot, and a pair of iron pellets caught Clara in the shoulder as she ducked out of sight.
“Fie on you for a free booter!” she cried out in pain.
Clara had never been in a gunfight before. Her uncle wouldn’t have heard of it. Now that she was in one, she suddenly saw his side of the matter a bit more clearly. There was nothing to be done about that now, however. Wincing through the pain in her shoulder, she grabbed ahold of her trusty wrench and hurled it with all her might over the side of her erstwhile foe. The sound of the pained grunt that followed met her ears with joy.
The sound of a weapon rapidly reloading itself did not. Apparently, the bears’ arms did more than just affix their blunderbusses to their shoulders. Clara knew she wouldn’t have time to reload her own gun in the time it would take the bear’s to reload itself. There was nothing for it. She’d have to act. Grabbing the great big gun by the shaft, she hefted herself bodily over the body of the felled bear. Screaming as she crested the creature’s corpse, she could see that she’d caught her attacker off-guard. She leapt toward him with all of her might. The bear had been attending his weapon, and only once she was already in the air did its muzzle turn toward her. Clara brought her gun down upon the creature’s head, the weight of her whole body behind the blow, and the two of them fell together in a heap to the ground. Claw and machine cut into Clara’s sides as they fell.
It took her a moment to pull herself free from the fallen bear, and another to realize that the creature wasn’t doing the same. She’d brained the beast in one blow. Which was good, as Clara was beginning to bleed from more places than just her shoulder. She glanced around the little clearing for the third, damaged bear. It was nowhere in sight. Somewhere off in the trees, she could hear it calling out once more, the same call which had rallied these two now-dead bears to its side. She doubted that she could fight off another wave of the beasts.
Clara was quite right in this assumption. She was in no shape to do so. As the fervor left her veins, she began to quiver and shake. Taking stock of herself, she was bleeding from a good number of scrapes and cuts. One gash upon her side looked particularly nasty, and the bits of shot that had lodged themselves in her shoulder were beginning to smart something ferocious. They would need to be attended to in short order. Her dress, too, was in tatters. Many of the little pockets which she had kept her tools in had been ripped open and their contents scattered about the clearing. Clara meant to scour the area and collect every last bit of precious, lost kit. She meant to see to all of her cuts and injuries.
What she did instead was collapse onto the body of the nearest bear and began to weep. Now that the fight for her survival had ended, the perilous nature of the day had descended upon her pell-mell. The fall from the airship, the two fights for her life, the injuries she’d been dealt, she felt their burden all the more keenly now that she was out of the worst of it. She kept her head enough to tear loose a few of the tatters of her dress and to bind them tightly about her girdle.
The gash in her side seen to, however, Clara collapsed. She quickly found sleep, though a fitful nightmarish sort. Fitful dreams and the sounds of the forest woke her many a time throughout the night. A handful of times she felt sure that the injured bear had returned, bent upon her destruction. Once she even thought she saw the shadowy shape of a man in strange finery gliding quietly through the clearing. Her eyes had met his for but an instant before she blacked out once more.
Two hours later, Clara set off into the forest again. A heated bit of metal had seen to digging the iron pellets out of her shoulder, and more strips of her dress had dressed the wound, as well as those that needed seeing to upon her arms and legs. A bright, shining brass shoulder-plate, ripped from one of the fallen bears, now sat upon her injured shoulder. A bearskin cloak was draped around her neck and hung down to the ground, providing her with insulation against the cold. And her belly was full of cooked meat as well. The blunderbuss in hand and her tools and ammunition tucked up in a newly-fashioned bearskin pouch, Clara looked every bit the adventurer that the previous day’s events had made her. With any luck, she thought, she’d find the crash site of the airship that day, along with discovering whether I had survived the crash.
Owing to the tumultuous nature of her experiences since falling from the deck of the airship, she could not definitively say in which direction the crash site might lie, relative to her own. All she had to go on were the location of her eventual fitful slumber and the path of destruction left by the bear and herself as they arrived there. Even these began to fade to something more like geographical hypotheticals, rather than certainties, the further she delved into the ever-twisting forest.
After what seemed like hours of trudging through the wild, Clara began to detect noises. The mere existence of sound was not what drew her attention, for the forest was full of chirps and calls and sudden rushes of wind through the trees, but rather the nature of it. From a direction she had once been sure was the way back to the site of the previous day’s battle, Clara could make out sharp, irregular calls. They were very unlike birdsong, and not at all akin to the calls the strangely intelligent mechanized bears made. No, these sounds were something new altogether.
Drawn to them like a moth to flame, Clara flitted from fallen tree to stone to deer-trail. As she went, the forest thinned about her. The trees grew younger and more sparse, the signs of animal life diminished, and even the sky showed itself between the treetops in increasing frequency. As the forest opened up before her, Clara began to see flashes of movement. There was smoke on the air and creatures of indeterminable size were dashing about, just out of sight. She broke into a sprint as she neared the final wall of green.
What she saw as she popped free of the forest was a scene of utter chaos and horror. Before her, at the edge of a lake larger than all of Great Britain, stood the wreck of a fishing village, engulfed in flames and smoke. Packs, whole packs, of the bears that she had fought off the previous day could be seen barreling down the streets. The villagers themselves were not so numerous. Here and there, a handful of people were being rounded up by the bears and herded into ironwork cages. The corpses of those that had resisted were strewn about in the dirt.
Clara knew that she would have to move quickly if she were to do any good for the remaining people in the village. Avoiding the gaze of the nearest pack of bears, she darted down a narrow alley. All she could hear about her were the discharges of the bears’ weapons and the crackling, crashing collapsing of the village’s structures. She peered hurriedly through windows, popped her head through cottage doors and ducked under carts of fish. Nowhere was there anyone to be seen. Clara’s heart raced. Was she too late? Was there no one left to save?
Something out of the ordinary caught her eye: In an adjoining street was a solitary bear. He was not tearing about as the packs of his brethren were, but was instead slowly, methodically inching toward a small storage shed affixed to a cottage. He had not seen her, so fixed was his gaze upon the shed.
Clara glanced at the shed. There was no sign of movement from within. Nor did anything from within the shed make the slightest detectable noise. Nonetheless, Clara knew that the small wooden structure was someone’s refuge.
The bear knew it too, from the look of him. He raised himself up upon his haunches, holding his massive clawed paw aloft as if to shatter the shed and its inhabitant in a single blow. His mouth opened wide, his massive teeth shining in the firelight. He made to roar as he brought his paw down in a deadly arc.
The roar never escaped his lips. The echoing blast of Clara’s blunderbuss sounded in the bear’s stead and the creature fell lifeless to the ground. Clara swept over the bear’s corpse, moving quickly. ‘With all luck,’ she thought to herself, ‘the rest of the bears will think that shot was one of their own.’ Yet haste trumped caution in such a predicament as hers, and Clara made no inquiry to see if her prediction was correct. Instead she flung open the door of the small shed.
Instead of a single person within, as she had suspected, she was surprised to find a total of four: a man, his wife and their two small children. Every one of them gasped as Clara flung open the little wooden door to their hiding place. The mother guarded her children and the father raised an ice pick menacingly.
“Wait,” said Clara. “I’m here to rescue you. We haven’t time for misunderstandings.”
The father and mother exchanged a glance. They were unsure.
“Come along,” said Clara urgently. “I can’t say how long it will be until we’re discovered!”
Perhaps it was this urgency in her voice and perhaps it was the dead bear at her feet that convinced them. Each of them swept up one of their children and followed her out into the street. They must have been hidden in the small shed for quite a while, for upon seeing the state of their village, the mother wept and the little boy upon his father’s shoulder wailed. Clara put a finger to her lips, but it was no use. The child continued to cry loudly.
A pack of bears, five in all, rounded the corner ahead of Clara and her refugees. Seeing their number, Clara spun on the spot, shouldered her Blunderbuss and pushed the little family in the opposite direction. She knew there was no outrunning a pack of bears indefinitely, but they didn’t need to go too far.
“Head for the forest!” she yelled. “Maybe we’ll lose them in the trees!”
It was a slim hope, I grant you, but it was all that Clara could think to do. Sadly, as she rounded a large cart full of fish, her hand still pressing the father of the little family of refugees onward, Clara gasped and lurched to a halt. There, between her and the relative safety of the forest stood three more bears, their blunderbusses aimed and at the ready. What was she to do? From five bears there might have been some small chance of escape, but from eight? Clara’s heart sank.
One of the bears ahead of her swiveled his head in her direction. Clara almost thought that he might be about to growl out some sort of terms of surrender to them. Instead of looking her in the eyes, however, his gaze fell upon her injured shoulder. He squinted for a moment and then became very agitated, growling and huffing wide-eyed at his fellows. Their eyes in turn fell upon Clara’s shoulder and the two of them began to sneer and groan at her.
Wanting to know what all the fuss was about, Clara chanced a glance at her shoulder. All was immediately made clear. Upon her shoulder sat the great bronze shoulder of the bear she had slain the previous day. Clearly this was the source of the bears’ anger, for it showed her to be not only an enemy, but a deadly one as well. Thinking quickly, Clara tried to use this to her advantage. She flung wide her bear-skin cape. The skin of the thing had not yet been properly cured and so shone red with bear’s blood. The three bears before her let out a collective gasp, looking uneasily at one-another. Clara let out a violent scream and lifted her blunderbuss above her head threateningly.
For a moment she almost thought that her scare-tactics would be enough to frighten off the three bears that stood before her. For a moment she envisioned herself freeing the small family from the wreck of their village unharmed. Then the other five bears appeared. At seeing their brethren arrive, the three that stood before Clara regained their resolve. All looked quite well and lost for Clara at that moment.
That is — until a new sound joined the burning of the village and the roaring of the bears upon the wind. It was a whirring, grinding sound and was accompanied by regular crashings and the trembling of the earth. Can you guess, dear reader, what it was that made such a tremendous racket? Why it was none other than yours-truly! I had, in setting off earlier that day, correctly followed the sounds of carnage and gunfire and was at that very moment cutting through a tree directly behind the three bears that barred my dear Clara’s way.
After a moment of buzzing and chipping and sawing I popped right through the wall of green, felling a sizeable tree as I did so. Such was my momentum in doing so, that I was quite easily carried forward at the heels of my new contraption. Much to the ill luck of the bear closest to me, for he met a very messy and rapid demise at the hands of my saws. And that was not all that my grand re-emergence into Clara’s life accomplished, for the falling trunk of the tree which I had just cut my way through fell thunderously upon another of the bears in assemblage. I daresay that this evened the odds quite a bit. For now, rather than eight-to-one, the bears merely out-numbered us six-to-two. Well, three actually, for the father of the family of refugees did what help he could with his ice pick.
When all was said and done in the matter, Clara and I emerged reunited and victorious, and the little family of fishers was saved. We did not meet any further resistance from the bears as we returned to Airship Downs that night, and the path of my milling machine’s progress was hardly difficult to follow. Clara and I spent the rest of the night recounting our short adventures to one-another in a state of great excitement. The family of fishers settled themselves in nicely that night as well. After all, there was a good deal of fresh-hewn lumber lying about.
The Days That Followed –
In the days after Clara’s return, my, or rather our, little encampment underwent something of a miniature renaissance. Upon the first day, I took Clara with me into the wreck of the airship. I showed her what had become of the cabins and her unfortunate coal-fired steed. I was not at all sure that even she, the automaton’s creator, could mend the poor thing. Clara herself seemed more optimistic. Gingerly she and I removed the wreck of the horse from the cabins and then set about salvaging anything else that we could from the airship. It was a triumphant effort.
Tools once thought lost reappeared. Useful cloths and timber began to form piles beside the dwindling wreck. Once we began to strip away the deck and paneling we discovered a veritable warren of tiny misplaced gears and washers and all manner of tiny thing. The discovery and meticulous collection of these was not only a wondrous boon, but also served us with a stark reality. Numerous as they were, many of these little things would have to be sacrificed to the repair of the coal-fired steed. Moreover, other bits of machinery would likely need repair and fine-tuning from time to time.
We would need to find a way to craft our own part eventually, and the sooner we began, the better. I made mention of this to Clara in passing, but could tell almost immediately that the task was to fall solely upon my own shoulders. My brilliant wife had already begun the intricate work of aligning, calibrating and fortifying the complex workings of her steed. A worthy project in its own right, and one which, I might add, would prove absolutely imperative in the days that followed. I drew up the plans for a rudimentary smithy over dinner that night and then called it a day.
The sun rose the next morning on what was to become a day full of triumphs. Early in the morning, I began implementation of my plans for the smithy. The structure itself would chiefly be made of wooden beams and lumber and the smelting pots would be provided by salvaged cooking pots. These were all either readily available in thanks to the parting out of the airship or could be cut to fit through the use of my little mobile timber mill. The real hitch of the plan was the construction of a stone kiln in which to heat what metals needed repair or forging. And so, for the first time in my life I took up true manual labor.
My first task was the construction of a simple pickaxe from the scraps of metal and wood that populated the area about the hulk of the airship. That was a simple enough task, mind you, and one which I did not much mind. Rather it was the implementation of the tool that lowered my spirits and sapped my strength. I picked a spot that looked particularly rocky to begin digging my quarry and set to. The sun was high in the sky by the time I had unearthed my first few stones, and they themselves all of pitiful size. I did not know what to do. Without the smithy I could not build for myself a better digging tool, and without such a tool, the quarrying of stone was incredibly slow. This, of course, halted any potential progress in constructing the rest of the smithy. I began to despair.
It was just then that I felt a hand fall upon my shoulder. It was a rough hand and as it fell repeatedly upon my shoulder I noted the strength of the individual connected to it. Turning, I found that the person whose hand was clapping itself upon me was none other than the fisherman who Clara had rescued two days prior. A warm smile was fixed upon his visage, and though he spoke only Russian and I only English, I knew immediately that he wanted to help. With one last resounding slap of his hand upon my shoulder, he plucked the pickaxe from my fingers and strode into the little hole of a quarry which I had begun to dig. He smiled at me again, motioned that he would handle the digging up of rock, and sent me on my way with a cheery phrase the meaning of which was not entirely lost upon me: he wanted to help.
It was a good thing that he had offered up his assistance, too, for he was much better at quarrying than I. His progress astounded me. Nevermore shall I look upon laborers with disdain, dear readers, for they are every bit the craftsmen that we who deign to call ourselves inventors and chemists claim to be. Still — I vowed that day to find a way to ease the working of the quarry whenever possible. To ask such hard labor on a man for too long was a sin, and one I knew too well from even those few hours in which I had done the work myself.
Free from the quarry, I next turned my attention to the planing and cutting of wood for the remainder of the smithy. This too, I found to be slow going. The wheels I had affixed to my little timber mill had made the cutting of exact angles a troubling prospect. The shifting of the wheels also offered up quite the mortal danger to my person, for I recalled all too readily the ease with which the mill had dispatched the bears in the fishing village. So off came the castors.
With that danger gone, I continued the planing of wood in a much more precise manner. Yet, once more I found myself stymied by the slowness of my progress. This time the problem lay with the little makeshift boiler I had thrown together to feed the whirring of the sawblades. The thing constantly needed feeding with new lumps of coal and fresh water; it did a poor job of retaining heat and pressure; the grievances go on. After a fair while of working the thing, my temper began to boil more readily than the boiler itself. I decided to take a breather and to check up on Clara’s progress with her steed.
I had meant to commiserate over what were likely to be two equally trying construction projects, but when I found her, Clara astounded me with the progress she had made. Not only had she repaired the delicate workings of her steed, but she had mended its broken ribs and leg with what looked like freshly-fired amber. I tell you, there is nothing that my dear Clara cannot do.
“How comes the resurrection?” I asked her cheekily, trying to mask my astonishment.
She spun about alarmedly, not having heard my approach. When she saw that it was me, however, the warning went out of her and she smiled sweetly. “Barnabas!” she exclaimed. “Why you’re just in time to find out for yourself. All he needs is a bit of feeding and he’ll be up and about.”
With that, Clara shoveled a few scoops of coal into the automaton’s belly and struck a spark. The coal caught flame and soon the steed began to ping and whir its way toward life. The first sign we had that Clara’s work had been done correctly was the twitch of a metal ear. It was followed shortly by the raising and then stamping of a clockwork hoof. Then, at last, the mechanical steed snorted a puff of steam from out its steel nostrils and lurched forward into a cheery little trot.
The contraption wheeled about in a series of tight circles and then, seemingly having had enough fun, returned to Clara’s side and bowed its head.
“Remarkable,” I said.
Clara smiled and thanked me. She then asked how my own endeavors were going. I was forced to confess that they had not been so fruitful as her own. I was in the midst of describing my troubles with the timber mill when I suddenly had a brainwave.
“Clara,” I said, “how strong do you think that your mechanical steed here is, now that he’s back in working order?”
“Strong as he ever was, I’d wager,” she replied. “He’d carry the two of us at a gallop, and a good amount of coal for his fuel along with us.”
“Splendid,” I said. “Might I borrow him for a moment?” I had recalled, you see, the presence of the two boilers which were buried at the front of the airship. They were too heavy for me to have rescued them alone, but with the help of Clara’s mechanical steed, the task seemed less daunting.
Sure enough, the freeing of the first boiler went quite smoothly. Up and out of the earth it popped, none the worse for wear. With the help of the steed, we dragged the thing over to the timber mill and set about affixing it. When all was said and done, the timber mill worked like a charm. No longer did I have to feed the boiler constantly with coal, for it was large enough to only need fuel once in every few days. The mill was grander now, as well. I can think of no lumber yard that would have scoffed at its presence either, for it cut and planed wood to perfect measure at a quick and easy pace.
The construction of the smithy was looking more and more feasible all the time. In fact, I was just about to return to the placing and fixing of planks when I remembered the second boiler, still buried in the airship’s belly. Off I strode, mechanical steed in tow, to get the thing. This time things did not go so smoothly. The boiler was about half-way out of the belly of the craft when the airship gave a terrible shudder. Worried, I spurred the steed on. Dutifully it doubled its pace and we wrenched the boiler free. No sooner had we pulled the thing loose though, than the airship gave a groan and a creak and then broke apart. What rigging and timber remained of the ship’s frame shattered, crumpled and collapsed in a cloud of soot and dust. The great main gear of the ship’s engine could be seen teetering through the smoke and all manner of scraping and twisting sounds could be heard from the area of the collapsing engine room. Clara and I ran for our lives, the coal-fired steed doing its best to keep up, tethered as it was to the second boiler. The last thing I recall seeing before I hid my eyes from the ever expanding cloud of debris was the ship’s main gear coming down. There followed a resounding thud and a tremor that must have been felt for a mile around.
When the dust finally cleared, Clara and I beheld the day’s final miracle. The airship was no more. Only a smattering of splintered timber and severed ropes told of what it had once been. In the airship’s place there lay, flat upon the ground, the massive main gear. Atop the gear, held aloft like a twisted, metalwork memorial, stood the airship’s driveshaft. But this was not the most wondrous of the sights that greeted our eyes. There before us, standing as calmly as a mule in its pen, was the coal-fired steed. Behind it lay the second boiler, dented but intact. We had lost the last remnants of our vessel, but in so doing we had gained the seeds with which we would sow our new life in Airship Downs.
The smithy was completed in the following days, much thanks to the fisherman and his labor in the quarry. With his help, we also improved upon accommodation for both Clara and myself and his own family.
The first of the little family to speak to us in English was the young girl, her brother following suit in short order. Such is the power for understanding in the mind of a child. With the help of the children we taught their parents to speak to us as well.
What a marvel of a thing is language. Friendships are garnered through understanding, and these friendships lead to sharing. The most wonderful things that the fishers, or the “Fishers” as we later dubbed them (their native surname proved unintelligible to the English ear), was the telling of stories. They shared with us the myths of their people, populated by creatures like the Yeti and the Sirin which were foreign to us. We shared with them tales of London and what fables of our own we could recall. But the most interesting tales told by far were those that the Fisher family swore to be true: The bears we had fought had a chief and came from lands as far away as our own; the lake upon whose bank they had settled was as wide as an ocean and its depths teemed with life stranger than any found in myth; far to the north there stood a mountain which made its own clouds and populated its own hillsides with creatures whose eyes burned red; the very stones that lay beside the lake had souls and magics all their own. The stories went on and on...
In due time, we would discover that many of their tales held true, but that, as they say, is another story.