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       Eldnium, p.27

           Enoch Pyle, Jr

  The old man had been right. The village was quite a journey. But they made it soon enough, though night had fallen, and the village was quiet and dark.

  Ah’ni led Landon to a smaller-than-most cottage at the far edge of the village, and Landon was pleased to see that a blacksmith and market were nestled at the center of town, giving Landon hope that he’d be able to arm himself and collect some supplies before heading out again.

  “I haf’ta get these fish gutted and washed by morning. Help mine, and I’ll pay yous a peck or two,” the old man said.

  “That sounds great,” Landon lied. He would have, in fact, been perfectly happy falling asleep instead, but he’d need money in the morning, so he agreed.

  Inside the cottage, Ah’ni handed Landon a knife and tossed a few fish onto a large wooden butcher’s block in the center of the room. “Yous know how to gut ‘em?” the old man asked.

  “Yeah, I think so,” Landon answered, and then, to himself, he thought, If they’re anything like the fish back home.

  They were. Landon cut a slit along the belly of the fish and yanked out a big strand of guts that were both slimier and smellier than the fish itself. He saw Ah’ni tossing the innards into a bucket on the floor, and so Landon did the same, but not before cutting open the stomach and peeking inside.

  “What yous done that for?” the old man asked suspiciously, with an air of disgust in his voice.

  “Where I’m from,” Landon answered, “we always check the stomach. Sometimes, the fish eat things they shouldn’t. Occasionally, we find something valuable.” Landon tucked his fingers into the fish’s stomach and pulled out a small roughly-round pebble about the size of a small marble. “Like this!” he shouted enthusiastically.

  “Pffff,” the old man huffed. “That ain’t valuable. That there’s just a scrap of eldnium.”

  “Eldnium?” Landon repeated, holding the little piece of metal up to the candlelight. “What is it?”

  “Bah, the waterways is full of it. Toughest metal ever found, but I’ll be damned if anyones can figure out what good it is. Can’t crush it. Can’t drill it. Can’t melt it down. Useless. Put here by the gods as a joke, if yous ask mine.”

  “Who are the gods?” Landon asked.

  “Boy, when yous say yous ain’t from around here, yous means it, don’cha?”

  “Sorry,” Landon said, and he slipped the rock into the pocket of his pants. Eldnium may be bountiful on this planet, but this was the first Landon had ever heard of it, and that meant it could very well be infinitely valuable elsewhere in the universe.

  He continued on with the fish, gutting and storing one after the other, checking stomachs regardless of the cross looks Ah’ni gave him with each slimy search.

  “Where’s yous from anyway?” the old man finally asked, and Landon found himself desperately searching for a believable story.

  “I’m from a village called Pana. I got caught in a storm while boating, and must have capsized. I washed up on your beach.”

  “Boating?” the old man asked, tossing another gutted fish aside. “What the hell izzat?”

  No boat making? Landon thought to himself. How does a culture thrive without boat making?

  He answered as well as he could without sounding alien. “A boat is a box that floats on the water. You sit in it.”

  Ah’ni gave Landon the worst look of all, and Landon now understood that he’d revealed himself as a true outsider. Ah’ni’s eyes made it clear that outsiders weren’t welcome.

  “I think yous better gets straight with mine,” the old man said. “I don’t like beens lied to.” Threateningly, he dragged the tip of his knife slowly against the wooden block. “No more lies, boy. Where’s yous from?”

  With all of the shifty and suspicious looks Ah’ni had given Landon since meeting him on the beach, Landon felt entirely uneasy being honest with the old man. But he was out of luck now. He knew he had pushed his lies too far and spoken too much information.

  “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “Okay…you see…I’m from another world,” Landon admitted, “a world far from here, somewhere near the center of the universe.”

  The man said nothing for a while but continued gutting fish. After a few minutes of silence, he said, “Summat years ago, our king and his mens was slaughtered along with three villagers. Slaughtered by a man who done came and went in the blink of an eye.” He stared down Landon, and Landon felt shivers move along his spine. “Yous with ‘em, boy?”

  Landon couldn’t believe his ears. This man described the same circumstance surrounding Li’an’s rescue. “How long ago did this happen?”

  “Must be summat like fifteen cycles now.”

  Landon let out a deep sigh and staggered backward against the wall, the knife dropping from his hand, his mind racing. “It can’t be,” he whispered. His eyes fell to the floor. This was, without a doubt, Li’an’s home planet. Landon looked back to the old man. “This kingdom…does it still exist?”

  The old man poked a thumb over his shoulder. “‘Bout two paras tha’way. Strong and true to the day. Queen’s get’n older, but she does fine by we.”

  Landon had no idea how far two “paras” was, but he knew that the kingdom was the best place to start looking for something like an Arm of the Apex. Of course, he thought, local legends might work, too.

  “I’m here looking for something…a special place. A place of power, maybe. A place where no one goes, or maybe even where everyone goes. A temple, or a scary hole in the ground…”

  “Well, which is it, boy?”

  “Anything. It could be anything. Is there anywhere you know of that seems…special?”

  The old man scratched his brow, staring Landon square in the eye. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah…might know a place like that.”

  “Can you take me there?” Landon said excitedly.

  The old man shook his head, still refusing to break eye contact with Landon, which was beginning to make Landon feel uneasy. “Nah, can’t do that, boy. But I can put yous in the right direction come first light.”

  “That would be perfect!” Landon shouted. “That would be perfect. How far is it?”

  “Before yous go get’n all excited,” Ah’ni said, “yous should know what yous is walk’n into. Sit down.”

  Landon pulled over a small wooden stool from beside the wood stove and sat down opposite Ah’ni, who had come round the edge of the butcher’s table and now leaned against its side.

  “Now, this happened summat sixty years ago. Don’t know if the place is still there, as I haven’t went back, but I was a young lad…‘bout your age. Me and mine baby brother, To’ni, went shak’n through the jungle up north of here, hunt’n aviars with our slings. We’d had a good pick. To’ni snatched himself a right hefty one…musta been six hunnert an’ forty sheks…barely could carry the thing. Kept complain’n ‘bout the weight. He’s get’n tired now, see, and says he wanna rest. I telled him we’d rest soon as we get to the next clearing.

  “So I done pushed him on. ‘I sees one up here,’ I says to ‘em. But as we walk, the air starts a chill, and the shadows of the trees grow blacker. Now, he’s cry’n ‘bout the cold. Says his fingers hurts. I telled ‘em to stop quake’n, ‘cause I sees us a clearing up ahead.

  “So we’s keep walk’n, and soon we’s in the clearing. Only t’ain’t a clearing. Is a big, stone circlet paved with eldnium. Thought I was see’n things. In the middle, there been a hole. I grabbed To’ni’s aviar and tried to drop it in…to sees how deep it been. But he starts scream’n and tug’n on it, and we drop it, and down it gone anyway.”

  Landon thought it sounded quite obvious that what Ah’ni had seen was possibly another gate like the one at The Fountains. He started to ask questions, but the sight of tears forming in the old man’s eyes made him hesitate, and the old man continued. “He grabbed after it…caught it by the neck…but it was too heavy for ‘em…pulled ‘em right down with it. I screamed after ‘em.

n.” The old man wiped his eyes with the back of his fishy hand.

  “I’m sorry,” Landon said. “I’ve lost family, too.”

  But the old man didn’t seem to hear. He just went on talking, “So I’s fall back cry’n…done lost mine bes’ friend. And then the air gots colder. The shadows gots darker. And the whole circlet starts spin’n round and round, pieces gone up, pieces gone down, transform’n or summat. And I’s just run. I’s just run right away from that place and never speaked a word of it to no ones…ever. Told mam and pap that To’ni got whisked away in the river. First lie I’s ever telled.

  “That place does wants itself a sacrifice, boy. And yous best mind it not be yous. And yous best mind it not be one of we.”

  The old man straightened up and went back to the fish. “Yous done for t’night,” he said. "Yous can sleep on the floor.”

  Landon, mind crammed with possibilities concerning the old man’s story, headed to the empty corner of the cottage and laid down on the dusty floor, using his hands as a pillow.

  He was asleep in minutes.


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