THE LOGS - A Wizard's Forge excerpt

 

Vic had never been much of a sailor. When she was a child, the other children had laughed when she bent over the gunwale, paled-faced and shaking—their people were fisherfolk, after all. Now, stomach heaving, she gulped air through her mouth, trying not to smell the stench wafting from her dress. She squeezed her eyes shut and popped them open, as if the bursting stars behind her eyelids could bring real light into the ship’s hold. But eyes open or closed, the darkness remained, filled with sobbing and moans and terrified cries. She couldn’t close her ears to those. Nor could she ignore her wrenched gut, sapped dry by the tossing of the ship but still straining to empty itself of misery. Don’t think about it, she whispered over and over, hearing instead the laughter of schoolmates about her white face and shaking hands.

Hands clenching her skirts, she clung to memories of jeering. They hadn’t laughed the day she’d passed her exams. That morning, the youth of Ourtown had looked at her with—respect, jealousy, admiration? She wasn’t sure. But being the youngest Logkeeper in history had to count for something. As Martha led her down the jaundstone path, her life had opened up. “Teach and preserve,” Martha said, when she handed Vic her first personal Logbook. “Until they come,” Vic had recited her part of the ritual, so pleased with herself she nearly burst. Yet the rolling misery of the ship’s hold was so real she wondered if her past was a dream. Not caring whether it was, she pulled the memories over her head and let the darkness carry her home.

† † †

As she chanted the Logtitles, Vic’s mind wandered. Henry had asked her to go with him to Festival tomorrow, but her spine squirmed at the thought of his sweaty palms. Her voice droned onto the next series of Logs, and she wondered why they bothered to keep them. Ninny, she scolded, or was it Martha’s voice that scolded her? “We do not seek to understand,” the Master Logkeeper always reminded her, “only to preserve.”

“Log 105.672, Ensign Chu set up the communication disk; 105.673, Civie Samantha Farrak killed by mountain sheep; lost Logs 105.674-111.13; 111.14, party sent north to find iron ore or other usable metal.”

Martha nodded. “Good. Now, recite all of Log 43.17.”

Vic’s lungs filled with relief. Her gut had told her she would be tested on this one. Her orals done, tomorrow they would name her Logkeeper and send her out among the villages. “43.17, Captain’s personal log. There’s a phase-out each time we enter hyperspace. Every day I become more and more concerned that perhaps we were never meant to reach Gomorrah Two…” She recited the whole log in two breaths.

Martha sat with her eyes closed, slowly rocking as if listening to music. “Some say you’ve progressed too fast. We’ve never made anyone so young a Logkeeper before. What is the significance of 43.17?”

Caught off guard, Vic stammered her answer. Martha never asked for an analysis of the Logs. “Captain Wong knew the Elesendar would crash here—well, not here, necessarily, and they didn’t really crash of course, but he knew they would never make it to Gamorrah. He realized the Elesendar had been sabotaged.”

Martha pursed her lips and squinted one eye at Vic. “Has anyone given you these answers—your father, perhaps?”

Vic shook her head. “My knowledge is my own.”

Martha nodded once. “Go rest,” she paused, glancing out toward Winter’s Isle where the rest of the town’s youth cavorted around bonfires. “Festival is tomorrow. And pack your bags.”

The corners of her mouth twitching up, Vic bowed to Martha and left the Master’s lodge. They’d accepted her. Tomorrow, she would be a Logkeeper.

She didn’t even glance toward the Isle as she walked home. Laughter and firelight filtered across the water, but Vic had no interest in going out there, especially when she saw Henry on the beach with his boat.

She tried to hurry past unseen, but he called her name. Even if Henry didn’t stink like legumes, he would still be pudgy and greasy, Vic thought as he huffed up the short distance between the water and the road. “Vic,” he gasped, “aren’t you going to the Isle?”

She snorted at him. “What for? Rolling around in the bushes with teenagers is not something Logkeepers do.”

“Come on. We’re missing the fun.”

“Martha’s making me a Logkeeper. I have to tell my father the good news.”

He blocked her way, eyes rolling over her spindly frame. “Come with me, Vicky. It’s not like you’re going to get any other offers.”

Skinny Vicky, short and icky. A taunt the girls in Ourtown chanted whenever Vic passed. Her throat closing, her fingernails dug into her palms and she pressed her lips together, trying to hold in tears.

Henry reached for her elbow. “Come on.”

She jerked away, stepping quickly down the beach. “You won’t shame me into rolling with you! I’ll be a Logkeeper tomorrow. Then you can’t treat me like this.”

“You’ll be an ugly old hen tomorrow,” he cried as she ran down the beach.

When she reached Belfast’s Point, she climbed the rocks, tearing her skirts, until she could see the breakers. Ourtown nestled against the cliff as if waiting for a tsunami to come and drown it. In the shallow bay, ribbons of red light and white adorned the wavecrests, reflections of the bonfires and Elesendar’s pale gleam. Vic wondered what the indigenous life of Knownearth thought when a new star entered their heavens and began rapidly crossing the sky, moving overhead at least three times most nights. Nearly three thousand years had passed since Captain Wong parked a United Mineral mining vessel with the registry LSNDR2237 in orbit around this world; two hundred generations since the Oreseekers came north, hunting iron and copper and other ores needed to repair the Elesendar’s disabled drives. They’d failed in their quest, and for some reason had decided to settle these steppes, thousands of miles from where the Elesendar’s crew had disembarked. Her ancestors had preserved every record they could from their space travels and home planet, but they hadn’t recorded why they never returned to their people.

She sighed, wondering if life as a Logkeeper would be as purposeless as the Oreseekers’ quest. She could recite thousands of Logs from memory, but who cared if she remembered equations for the precise targeting of a wormhole if no one would ever use it? The waves whispered and shouted of other lands, where the rest of humanity still lived. Occasionally peddlers made their way up the coast, though the harsh winters turned most back before they made it to Ourtown. Still, they knew people lived in great cities far to the south, occupied forests and mountains, even mined precious iron the Oreseekers had missed. And on the high seas sailed the dreaded Caleisbahnin—merciless pirates and slavers who ruled the waves.

Vic wondered what such people would think of her. She’d spent her life training to be a scholar and teacher, but the other girls had teased her and the boys ignored her because she was weak as a jellybug and skinny as a totem. And Henry thought she would settle! As if she would ever consider rolling in the bushes with him.

 

“Your mother looked just like you at your age,” Father says, eyes sparkling. “Don’t worry, honey. You’re not pretty. Pretty’s a common thing, and you’re not common. Beauty is something you acquire a taste for.”

“I’m not a pickle.”

He laughs and glances at Veronica’s portrait. “Neither was she.”

 

Vic gazed at the stars, wondered which one was circled by Gamorrahs One and Two. Did they have a taste for beauty there? She shook her head. Why did that matter? She’d be a Logkeeper tomorrow, like her father before her, and his mother before him. The youngest Logkeeper in Ourtown’s history. Great things, Vic, she whispered. You’re destined for great things.

† † †

The next morning, Martha bestowed the Logkeeper’s sash in a brief ceremony quickly overshadowed by the hubbub of Festival, and Vic departed on her first journey as a Logkeeper. As spring unfolded across the tundra, she traveled inland trails, camping in patches of purple spineflowers, sleeping in the corners of barns or, in the larger villages, by the mayor’s hearth. Her duties—teaching the children their letters and mathematics, drilling the youths on the history of the Oreseekers—made her welcome most places, especially because she brought news and mail, an unofficial function she discovered as she left Ourtown and an old woman pressed a letter into her hands, addressed to an old man in another town. By the summer solstice, her route brought her back to the chill winds of the coast, and she carried several letters for the residents of Cairo, nestled into a sea cliff like a little sister of Ourtown. Standing atop a bluff, Vic scanned the cluster of ironreed lodges through a swarm of gnats dancing in the golden light. Far bigger than the inland villages, the town boasted a fleet of fishing boats and a school and full-time teacher. As she came down among the lodges, townspeople waved cheerily at her yellow sash and pointed her toward the schoolhouse.

“You’ll find Samson still there,” said a woman slicing fish. “Don’t let him bother you. He’s a good sort.”

Vic followed her gesture to a mud-caulked dome surrounded by verdant fronds and flowers. Chillenherb flared her nostrils. Strong stuff, she thought. Except for festivals, most people kept their cooking bland—as bland as the tundra.

She walked in the open door and announced herself, but no one emerged from the shadows. A closed door beckoned from behind the teacher’s desk, so she knocked.

“Not now.”

“I’m a Logkeeper,” Vic told the voice. “The villagers sent me here. Where can I put my things and bed down?”

“Go to the innkeeper’s lodge. I’m busy.”

Chagrined, Vic wished she were older. Since she’d left Ourtown, she had more often come across suppressed chuckles than eyes wide with awe at the sight of her yellow sash. That upstart mayor in Hackensack had actually accused her of being an impostor.

Gritting her teeth, Vic demanded the teacher come out and greet her.

“I will soon enough. I’m in the middle of something.”

“What could be so urgent that you won’t greet your superior?” she asked, raising her chin.

Silence ebbed from the doorway. Vic stamped her foot—she would not put up with this. She turned the doorknob.

“Get back!” Samson cried as the door popped open and a draft sucked inside. Vic dove aside as light and heat burst into the schoolroom then vanished with a thwump. Cautiously, she peered into the billowing smoke.

Coughing, a man stumbled out, black with soot. “What did you do that for?”

“I don’t know.” Idiot, she thought, that’s a child’s answer. “Why wouldn’t you answer me?”

He looked around them as if the smoke said it all. Vic followed his gaze back into the room.

“What were you doing in there?”

Shaking his head, he walked out of the schoolhouse. “You can leave your papers here—nobody’s going to bother them.”

The innkeepers prepared a hot bath for Vic as soon as she walked in their lodge. Well-fed and red-haired, the duo laughed and guessed that the soot on her face came from one of Samson’s experiments. “He’s always tinkering, that boy,” the husband chuckled.

The wife shooed Vic off to a curtained corner of the lodge, down a ladder to the cellar where a clay bathtub steamed. “You want your clothes laundered, honey?”

Vic nodded and slipped into the tub, saying she’d wear her green dress. The innkeeper bundled her other clothes into the washbasin and busied herself with soaping and scrubbing. Vic lay still as heat eased travel-weary muscles. Spread across the water, her hair turned from sunset-gold to deeper red as the water pulled it down.

“Such lovely amber hair,” the innkeeper said, laying a pair of towels near the tub. “Bet the boys just fall all over you.”

Vic blushed, and the woman smiled. “Don’t worry, dear. Pretty’s a common thing.”

“My father always says that.”

The innkeeper nodded. “Wise man. Now hurry and dress—you’ve arrived just in time for the Solstice Scoop!”

At the shoreline, boats tilted on their sides in the sand, shadows slanting across the beach to kiss the base of the cliff.

“While the tide’s out,” the innkeeper explained, holding her apron in the shape of a basket, “we all run out to the waterline and the men scoop up crabs and mussels while the women run behind and catch them in their skirts. Do they have Scoops in Ourtown?”

Vic shook her head.

The innkeepers whispered at each other, then the woman turned to Vic. “Go with Justin and he’ll find you a partner.”

Smiling wanly, the husband grumbled under his breath as he led her through the gathering crowd. “You there.” He tapped a black-haired man on the shoulder. “Samson, you got a partner?”

Vic backed away when she heard the name and blinked at Samson’s almond eyes when he turned.

He frowned. “I guess I’ve got one now.” With the soot washed away, he was younger than Vic thought, perhaps only five or six years her senior. She edged closer.

“I don’t bite. But next time a door is closed and you’re not invited in, don’t open it.”

Vic narrowed her eyes, but swallowed a retort. “So when does the scooping start?” Shellfish scuttled here and there, waiting for the return of the sea.

“We’ll wait until the tide ebbs as far as it’ll go, then we’ll run for it. The beach is steep; the water washes back pretty fast. You’ve got to be quick.”

Vic fingered her skirt. “I can be quick.”

“Just don’t drop anything. Aren’t you too young to be a Logkeeper?”

Someone whistled and Samson clutched Vic’s hand and rushed down the beach alongside other couples. Whooping, laughing, the men grabbed and tossed, women dodged and swerved, everyone leapt over each other. Samson kept a steady stream sailing over his shoulder, and Vic managed to catch more shellfish than she missed. By the time the tide washed back up the shore, she and the teacher were laughing along with the rest, and Vic’s skirt was as heavily laden as the others’.

“What do you do with all of it?” she asked as Samson led her among the cauldrons, sorting crabs and snails into different pots.

“Tonight we’ll feast until everyone goes home too stuffed to sleep, and we can the leftovers for winter.”

At the last pot, a few dungcrabs clambered over each other within the basket of her skirt. Vic grimaced. “These taste foul—we don’t eat them in Ourtown.”

“We don’t either. Let’s throw them back in the next cove. They’ll eat our nets.”

At the far edge of town, the sand gave way to rocks. Shadows long, the water red, they scrambled over the sharp, glistening stones to reach another beach, then walked in the gloaming in silence. She’d never seen honey skin and almond eyes like Samson’s. The Oreseekers filled their early Logs with tales of “vitamin D deficiency,” a condition that had left many of her darker-skinned ancestors bent and crippled. No one remembered what had been wrong with those people, but now dark hair was uncommon, brown skin a rare throwback. She asked Samson where he was from.

He grimaced. “Here. I was born here. Just because I don’t have pasty skin and round green eyes, don’t think I’m not one of you.”

Vic’s cheeks warmed. “I was just curious.”

Halting, Samson gazed out to sea. The waves rolled in, the crash and churn echoing off the cliffs behind them. Dipping into the ocean, the sun flickered around something, perhaps a boat out for a solstice cruise. “My mother was a Caleisbahnin,” Samson confessed, and Vic’s breath caught in her throat. “One winter my father found a Caleisbahn man washed up on shore, half dead. He took the man in, and in the spring, gave him a fishing boat so he could go home. Late that summer, the man returned and left my father the best boat he’s ever owned.”

“That huge green skiff? It’s fantastic,” Vic exclaimed. The boat had stood out from the others like a rosy in a bed of spineflowers. Most fishing boats were made of ironreed and looked as utilitarian as they needed to be, but this one was wood with a carved bow and a mast that spiraled high above the others, green paint glimmering amid the scuffed and patched hulls of the others. “And your mother?”

Samson sighed and began walking again. “The skiff was payment for the boat my father had given the man. But, by Caleisbahn law, he still owed my father his life—or at least, a life. My mother was the other half of the payment.”

Vic almost dropped the crabs, wriggling more vigorously in her skirt. “You don’t pay debts with people.”

“Here, we might as well let those go. We’re far enough away now.”

She looked back at the distant cliff. Another stone outcropping marched into the sea ahead of them, and she wondered how far the Caleisbahn sailor must have traveled to wash ashore here.

Samson shrugged. “Far enough you don’t see more people like me.”

Her skirts fell, and the crabs scuttled toward the waves like cows for the barn during a thunderstorm. Certain she had not said anything aloud, she stared at him. His face cracked into a grin, then he burst out laughing. “Vic, you Logkeepers spend years reading and rereading about quantum mechanics and space travel, but you don’t know anything. My mother taught me mindspeech—the ability to Hear what people don’t say. It’s a common skill among her people.”

“Who? Among slaves sold by pirates?”

His eyes narrowed, but his smile widened. “My mother was proud of what she was. Among her people, to be traded to pay a debt of honor is an honor in itself. She loved my father, but she never let me forget who I am. She taught me mindspeech, and the history of Knownearth. That’s where the rest of humanity lives: Knownearth. Where we live is called the Unknown on their maps. If other people have heard of Oreseekers at all, they only know us as slaves traded by pirates.”

Vic shivered. Rumors of Caleisbahn raiding parties regularly filtered up from the southern Oreseeker settlements, and parents would use the treat of pirate slavers to frighten children into good behavior.

“No one else in Knownearth cares about the Logs either—the few who do think they’re religious parables, not history. We have to stop waiting for somebody to show up and ask you to recite all those records you know by heart. If we would use that knowledge ourselves, think of what we could accomplish!”

“Your experiments?” she snorted.

“Yes. Ways to make fresh water out of seawater. Lighting that doesn’t fill your eyes with smoke when you read in winter. Why are our lives so hard, Vic? Our ancestors had all sorts of things to make life on these tundras easy, or at least easier. Why else would they have settled here at all?”

She shrugged. Samson echoed all the doubts she had harbored for years but been afraid to voice. Ours is not to understand, but to preserve. She had said that maxim so many times, she never thought about what it meant.

“A scholar doesn’t just memorize as many texts as she can,” Samson continued. “A scholar seeks understanding. We could be so far ahead of the rest of the world, but we’re so mired in old knowledge that we’ve fallen behind. There’s a country called Latha where all people speak is mindspeech, and it’s no harder to learn than any spoken language. And then there are the cities. My mother said that Traine is gorgeous to behold. Spires that kiss the clouds, and all the different kinds of people in the world moving like a multicolored tapestry. Our lives are all gray.”

Vic stood and began striding back toward Cairo. “I don’t believe you. They’ll come. Our lives,” she turned back and shouted at him, “my father’s life, and his mother’s before him are not meaningless!” Her feet sinking heavily into the sand, she ran from him, from her doubts. How could the rest of the world have forgotten, when the Oreseekers hadn’t? Three thousand years since the marooning. Her people hadn’t forgotten—how could anyone else?

The surf blotted out the screams until she came around the cliff to Cairo’s beach. The feasting tables lay jumbled together on sand strewn with boiled shellfish. Strange men carrying bludgeons stomped past the overturned cauldrons, heaving prone villagers into boats drawn up onto the sand. A raider guarding the boats shouted and pointed at Vic.

Samson grabbed her arm and broke the icehold of her fear. “Run!” He dragged her back over the sharp rocks and onto the other beach. Vic’s feet pounded across hardpacked sand, spray flying as they ran through water crawling up the beach. Behind them, men shouted. Samson panted next to her, but in her mind she heard his voice, “If we can make it around the next cliff face, there’s a cave where we can hide.”

Her legs pumped faster, but her dress—the thick, multilayered skirts designed for warmth—caught around her shins and slowed them down. She paused to gather them up above her knees. Samson urged her on, and the cliff on the other side of the beach inched closer.

The pirate tackled her, his weight knocking her breath from her. Her mouth full of sand, she gagged and coughed, but before she could scream, his bludgeon rose up and blotted out the stars.

© 2016 ROCKdotVOSS