The twins went back inside to look around while Hugh stood there with Walker near his forge.
“I never asked for this,” said Hugh.
“That’s why I feel right in giving it to you,” said Walker. “I would never do this for someone selfish enough to ask for it, nor would the city have come together to do it. We’re inspired by you, Hugh.”
Hugh shook his head, looking around.
“You’re smart, Hugh. You must know what this is about.”
“I’m not sure,” said Hugh. “I want to think this is your way of saying thanks, but it’s pretty clear that you’re trying to buy my help in the future. Both situations are just… sad.”
“Why is that sad?” asked Walker.
“I thought you were smart enough to know by now that I don’t help people because I expect something in return.”
Walker smiled. “So you’ll stay, then?”
“Wonderful. Well, as much as I would love to stay and chat about those Austerians, I have to meet with Zeke today in an official capacity regarding your visit. You’re welcome to come with me, but… I think you could find a more constructive use of your time than attending some stuffy debriefing.”
“If I’ll be staying here,” said Hugh looking through his home at the river and Theora’s house on the other side, “I need a bridge over the river.”
Walker furrowed his brow. “At the moment, all bridge construction is against the law. There are only two bridges in the heart of the city still up, and they had to be modified to allow for the passage of larger ships while we construct the wall.”
“There must be some way to allow me to cross the river without having to walk so far.”
Walker stroked his chin. “I’m not a man who can solve this dilemma, but I know who can. I’ll send him over today. You worked with him on the scout towers, I’m sure you’ll remember him. He was the chief architect in the construction of your new home, in fact.”
Hugh thanked him and went back into his home. He walked into the garden and sat on a bench. Next to him was a small pond with fish swimming. He watched them slowly waving their fins, mostly staying in place, but occasionally darting around. He saw an orange one eat an insect as it rested on the surface of the water. He looked around at the plants, all in new, loose soil. It was hard to believe this was all built in a week.
“Wow, this is really nice.” Hugh looked up to see Theora. “Oh, sorry, the twins helped me cross and invited me in.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you’re always welcome here,” said Hugh.
She sat on another bench and touched some fronds of a fern nearby. “How was your trip?”
Hugh told her about his travels to Austeria, and people started carrying things into his new home. He saw one carrying the wyrm egg, and he stopped him to take it. He showed it to Theora.
“Those are scary creatures,” she said. “They’re also called tunnel crocs. Is it true that they talk?”
“Oh… I guess they do,” said Hugh. “Before I ever saw them, I heard them saying stuff… I guess the things their last victims said. I didn’t know it was them, though. I thought another person was in there with me.”
“I’m glad you’re okay…” she looked at his legs, still bandaged in most places, scabbed slashes visible in every exposed patch. “You’re okay, right?”
“I’m fine, it was like running through a thorny thicket with no pants on.”
Theora laughed and shook her head. “What a mental image.”
Someone behind them laughed. It was Nikomedes, standing partially behind a column, watching them.
“Nikomedes? Are you here for me?” asked Hugh.
“You want a bridge?” asked Nikomedes.
“That would be great,” Hugh replied.
“I have an idea,” he said before walking off.
“That would be nice,” said Theora. “It’s such a pain crossing by boat, and if you guys aren’t around to help me, it’s even worse.”
“You know… there’s something that’s been bothering me,” said Hugh.
“What is it?”
“I got the impression you didn’t believe in magic.”
“I don’t,” said Theora.
“And yet… you took me to a witch who allowed me to talk to the dead.”
“Magic doesn’t work,” said Theora. “That’s the defining characteristic of magic. Grandmama isn’t a witch, and she doesn’t do magic.”
“So… what is it she does?”
“What she did for you wasn’t magic, it was necromancy.”
“So necromancy is real?” asked Hugh.
“Can you do it?”
Theora smiled and looked away, then back at Hugh. “If I could, would I have bothered dragging you through the woods to find Grandmama?”
“You’re dodging my question,” said Hugh.
“No, I can’t, but…” Theora went over to the fish pool, knelt down, then waved her hands over it. She made a long, drawn out shushing sound. The fish all moved in unison, like a flock of birds, sweeping across the pond, swimming about as one.
Hugh stood up and looked over her shoulder, watching. In the water, he saw himself, the twins, Zeke and Theoson outside Leocrates’ home, eating salted pork. It looked exactly like the morning after they arrived in Austeria.
“I can’t speak to the dead, but I can see the past,” she said. “It’s called hydromancy.”
Hugh bent closer. He could almost hear the conversation they were having. Theora stood up and walked away from the pond. The image in the water faded and the fish went back to meandering about the pond randomly.
“Can you see everything in the past?” asked Hugh.
“I work best when I am recalling the past of someone nearby. I can call up some long-gone moments, especially those of great importance, but they are muddled, hazy.”
“That’s pretty interesting.”
“It can be, or it can be… very distracting,” she said. “Sometimes, when I’m feeling down, I look into a cup of water and watch my father holding me when I was a child, or I see him whittling a horse from wood for me to play with. For a moment, I’m happy, but then… I realize he’s gone, that I’m merely dwelling on the past, and I’ll never be able to make a new memory with him.”
Hugh just looked at her silently, not sure of what to say.
“I’m sure you can relate,” she continued. “You obviously remember your mother.”
“Not that clearly,” said Hugh. “She died when I was young. Before I saw her emerge from the blood thanks to Grandmama, I had almost forgotten what she looked like, almost forgotten the sound of her voice.”
“I guess we’re all haunted by not only what we know, but also what we’ve forgotten. There’s a sibyl at the Temple of the Sun in Tauron who cannot remember anything, but she knows everything about the future… until it happens. They say she is haunted by images of impending doom, not only involving herself, but also other people. However, those close to her say her actual past is even more gruesome than the visions she has of her death, and what she most despairs over is not being able to remember even who she is.”
They talked for a while longer, until a man began painting on Hugh’s wall. They walked over and leaned against pillars, watching him. Before their very eyes, the battle at Sparx Farm came to life on the wall. He moved on to do various scenes at different stages of the battle, often prominently featuring Hugh.
At one point, Nikomedes came in and led Hugh outside. There, he drew in the dirt with sand, describing a chain he needed Hugh to make. It would be composed of large oval links fastened together by flat hinges, so the whole chain could lay flat. Nikomedes stressed that the links could be any length, but they must all be near uniform in size, whatever size they were, and the chain must be at least about three and a half meters long.
Theora went off to the forest to collect herbs and mushrooms, while Hugh set to work with the twins making the chain. With the help of the twins, he finished it later that night. They slept in their new home, each of their rooms being on the same side of the house, with Hugh’s room being the one in the back, the largest, mostly to accommodate his huge new bed.
The next morning, Hugh woke up to the sound of banging. He went outside his home to see Nikomedes and a small team of carpenters working on a bridge.
“Hugh, are you going to be around today?” asked Nikomedes.
“I guess so,” said Hugh.
“It would be a lot easier during the last step if you were around. It would save me from needing a crane.”
Hugh went off to town to buy some fish, then he stopped by the military barracks to see if he could get some iron to work with at his forge. They said they would send someone by with some iron ingots. Hugh wasn’t home for a minute before someone stopped by with a wheelbarrow full of them.
He worked the iron with the twins, finishing a few axe heads before Nikomedes came to find them. “If you’re not busy…” he said.
Hugh was perplexed at what he was looking at. There was a simple bridge on the side of the river, and a large, complex jumble of robes and the chain he made, as well as a wheel with notches, all this next to a very tall, thick pole that was stuck into the ground.
“If you can hold the bridge here in an upright fashion here, we can attach the lowering mechanism,” said Nikomedes, standing next to the wheel apparatus and a tall shaft of wood. He directed Hugh and had him hold the bridge upright on its end, so that if it fell forward, it would traverse the river. A worker then climbed a ladder that was leaned against the bridge, and he secured one end of a rope to the top end of the bridge after snaking it through a hole in the top of the pole.
After it was all complete, Nikomedes had workers roll large rocks to the base of the bridge, and told Hugh to let go of the bridge gently. It leaned a bit over the river before the rope went tight and stopped it. Nikomedes pulled a wooden lever on the apparatus, then grabbed a handle on the wheel and turned it, causing the bridge to lower as a large weight near him rose into the air.
“Balanced enough for even me to operate it,” Nikomedes said, smiling. He directed Hugh to adjust the bridge’s position a bot over a large hinge that had been driven into the ground, then workers hammed large nailed through the end of the bridge into the hinge.
Nikomedes raised the bridge, inspected the hinge, and then lowered it again. He walked out onto the bridge and beckoned Hugh to come out. The bridge buckled a bit, but held their weight. Nikomedes smiled and clapped his hands. Hugh patted him on the back.
“This is amazing,” said Hugh.
“Impressive.” They turned to see Zeke approaching. “I had to see this mechanical marvel I’ve heard so much about. You’ve outdone yourself, cousin.”
“You’re cousins?” asked Hugh.
“You didn’t know Nikomedes is Herbert’s son?” asked Zeke.
“I should have known,” said Hugh. “Everyone seems to be related.”
“And yet I’ve never met your family,” Zeke said.
“My family is all dead,” said Hugh.
Zeke grimaced. “Well, that explains it.”
Nikomedes waved his good-byes and left with the carpenters.
“I had quite a discussion with my father and uncle about our trip to Austeria. They winced a little at the conditions of your deal, but they didn’t think you would ever get five-hundred troops out of them. Five-hundred Austerian troops is like twenty-thousand Politian militiamen. Herbert isn’t even sure how to utilize so many well-trained troops. They were only expecting two or three hundred.”
“Where do you get slaves from?” asked Hugh.
Zeke stepped out onto the bridge and leaned over the lower railing, watching the water pass by below him. “Where ever we can get them, I suppose.”
“I’ve never understood slavery.”
“What’s there to understand?” asked Zeke.
“What’s to stop a slave from running away?” asked Hugh.
“The same thing that keeps poor people who aren’t slaves from fleeing the city: they’re better off here at the bottom than out in the world, free. Of course… they won’t be better off in Austeria, but the Austerians have ways of keeping their people tied to the land.”
“What do you mean?” asked Hugh.
“Well… I hear stories of them having the strongest and boldest of their slaves tortured and killed, simply to show the others their place. If one slave escapes, every slave they ever talked to is killed, and if the escaped slave is caught… let’s just say they have ways of making a person suffer for days, well beyond the point where a person begs for death.”
“That sounds not only awful, but inefficient,” said Hugh.
“They have more slaves than they know what to do with,” said Zeke. “Their military campaigns bring in slaves by the thousands every year. They don’t have enough mines and farmland to utilize them all, and they often kill any extra slaves. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the slaves we give them will be killed after delivering the gold they carry.”
Hugh shook his head.
To be continued…