Friday, October 12, 2012

The Journey to the Serpiente Sea by Hollis Whitlock

Dwarf Minero finds a giant ruby, but is worried that the elves will tax him dry as he heads to his favourite fishing spot; by Hollis Whitlock.

Minero was mining for gems on the edge of the cliff of Mount Piedra, which overlooked Lake Labina. He put his pickaxe down and wiped the sweat from his forehead. On his hip hung a pouch of precious gems. Minero removed the large ruby from the shards of glistening stones, and examined it under the light of his kerosene lamp.

The ruby was the size of a crabapple and fit for a king. Minero wanted to see the stone sparkle in the sunlight. He walked through the narrow passage, which was four feet high, to the entrance of the cave. Warmth and sunlight eased his aching back. A fire burned in ashes of the Randor tree. Minero sat on a round stump and held the stone to the sun. Red light sparkled like the flames of a roaring fire.

Then crumpling leaves, grinding gravel and sloshing water pierced his ears. Minero put the ruby in his pouch and clutched his dagger. His hands shook as he looked for an intruder. Nobody was in sight, but creeping footsteps were evoked in his imagination and illusions of ogres haunted his thoughts. He exhaled for he knew that it was a traveler passing through on the road below.

Minero placed a pot onto the blackened embers of the fire. The moisture underneath evaporated in a cloud of steam. His grip tightened around the handle of his dagger as he peered down the trail leading to the road. But only the birds fluttering in the breeze and chirping in the trees vibrated his eardrums.

When the water boiled, he removed the lid and crumbled tea leaves into the pot. After the water steeped, Minero poured a cup and savored the hot liquid while dreaming of a better life. What would the king pay for such a stone? A horse and cart would make the day's journey less burdensome. A new home with fresh linen would soften his burdens.

When the cup was dry, Minero grabbed his possessions and walked down the slope to his fishing hole. "I can't eat a gem can I?" he thought. "And the king's palace is a day's journey from here." Minero dug up three worms from the soft mud and pierced them through the hook. He cast into the waters hoping to catch a trout or a bass. But the line remained as slack as a loose thread.

Footsteps from the trail leading to the road interrupted his tranquility. Minero peered around trees and shrubs. He spotted a fellow dwarf, no more than four feet high, strolling with rod in hand to the fishing hole. Minero smiled. Pescado was a childhood friend and fellow miner. Minero cast again for the fifteenth time.

"Are you having any luck today?" Pescado asked.

"No, not at all. I'm worried the waters have become depleted."

"You might be right. Have you tried anywhere else?"

"No. I'm thinking a trip to the Serpiente Sea may be in order."

"Yes, that's an idea. All the gems in the world won't fill your belly."

"How very true."

Minero looked to the sun. He calculated that there would be four hours of sunlight before dusk and his lamp had fuel for the return home. The journey was two hours by foot or an hour by mule and cart.

"Shall we make the trip then?"

"Yes, I believe we should."

Pescado and Minero clambered into Pescado's cart and rode through the Negro forest toward the Muerte Sea. The path was mucky from the previous night's rain. Minero recognized the sloshing hooves that he had heard earlier. Then the path forked into a road that wound around Lake Labina.

"Someone has been clearing and paving the paths," Minero said.

"Yes, this will make the trip much easier."

"Quiet true, it should save us some daylight."

Minero peered through the trees at the lake. Nine boats were on the water at equal distances. Nets were being lowered and raised. Squirming fish were being harvested. Minero shook his head and slowed the mule at an opening between trees.

"So that is where all the fish have gone."

"I was wondering where they all went."

"The elves are taking all our food."

Pescado whipped the mule. The pace was brisk until they noticed a patrol of military elves striding toward them. Pescado veered off the trail into shrubbery.

"Where specifically does this road lead?"

"I'm not sure. I never take this path. I stay on the rabbit runs away from traffic."

"So do I, they don't look too friendly." Ten marching elves stood before them at an elevation of five and half feet. The leader stepped forward and spoke.

"Where are you headed?"

"The Serpiente Sea," Minero replied.

"This road is for business and military travel only."

"But we need to get there before dusk."

"Yes, the small paths are a bit narrow for a mule," Pescado said.

"You're miners. Are you not?" the leader asked.

"Well... yes of course we are," Minero agreed. The leader turned and smiled. The squad nodded in unison. The leader looked at Minero. He rubbed his long slender fingers together.

"Alright, that is business and worthy of passage. A gem apiece will suffice."

"What? That is an..."

"This road provides you with safe passage to and from your place of business and requires maintenance. Do you understand?"

Pescado lowered his head. "Yes of course I do." Pescado turned to Minero. "I spent everything I had on this mule and cart. Did you have any luck today?" Minero felt moisture form under his eyes. His heart raced. He stuttered when speaking.

"Yes, yes I did." Minero's arms shook. He reached into the pouch with his short thick fingers and rifled through his find for the smallest two gems. The leader frowned.

"We're not thieves. We support hard work and business. You've nothing to worry about here." The leader moved his hand foreword with the palm facing up. Minero nodded and smiled. He removed two stones and placed them into the leader's hand. Fragments of red ruby glistened. The leader nodded his head. "Alright carry on."

"Thank you sir."

Minero and Pescado rode at a brisk pace until they saw a bridge. A patrol of elves was marching. Dwarves were expanding the width of the overpass with mortar and granite. A mule and cart was hauling fish.

"We need to cross. Don't we?" Pescado said.

"I'm afraid so."

Pescado increased the pace. The leader of the patrol stepped forward and blocked his path. He pushed his hand forward with the palm facing outward.

"Halt at once!" Pescado stopped the mule at the edge of the bridge. The leader approached. "Who granted you access to this road?"

"The patrol down the road. We paid a gem apiece sir."

"Are you crossing the bridge or heading to town?"

"We're heading to the Serpiente Sea."

"For the purposes of what?"

"Fishing," Pescado said.

"Fishing? Go to the market."

"We're harvesting salt from the Muerte Sea as well," Minero said.

"Are you officially employed with the elf government?"

"Ah... no we're not."

"Well, it's going to be another gem apiece then," the leader replied.

"To cross a bridge?" Pescado asked. Pescado and Minero looked down at the dwarves grueling away with brick and mortar. Sweat was running down their reddened faces. The dwarves saluted. Pescado nodded.

"Yes, it's being expanded and paved to allow larger carts to fit and that costs money. Do you understand?"

"We understand." Pescado replied. Pescado looked at Minero. "Can you cover it?" Minero nodded while fingering through his pouch like an elderly man too old to realize that inflation had turned his savings to tuppence.

"Are you in need of work?" the leader asked. Minero kept fumbling through the pouch trying to find the smallest gems. "There's plenty of that to be had. You need to register your cart in town. Then travel to and from work is free."

"It's not free! We pay taxes!" a dwarf shouted.

"So do I," the leader retorted.

"No, no, we're fine sir," Minero said.

"Yes, we're mining salt and bringing it to the market," Pescado said.

"Get a license in town!" the leader ordered.

"Yes sir." Minero handed the leader two fragments of ruby. The leader nodded and moved aside.

Pescado whipped the mule. Trees and shrubs blurred. Wind watered their eyes. Small animals scurried. Birds darted between trees. Minero held tightly onto the railing. Pescado smiled.

"Well you did pay for it."

"Yes I know. Just keep your eyes on the road."

Minero peered through an opening in the trees. A gaping hole in the side of a hill, which bordered on the edge of the river, was being mined. Mule and cart were transporting gravel to the newly paved roads. At a junction, an elf was directing traffic. Pescado pulled on the reins.

"The world is certainly changing."

"It's too fast for an old man like me. I can't keep up."

"You'll get used to it. Look at me."

Minero turned to conceal his activity. His hands shook while reaching for his pouch. He fingered two rubies into his palm and clenched his fist.

"What's wrong Minero. You seem to be nervous today."

"Nothing, nothing's wrong. I, I probably should have headed home."

"I can turn around if you like."

"No, no we've come this way now."

The elf turned his attention to Minero and Pescado. He approached with long strides. He raised his arm with palm facing outward and spoke.

"Halt!" Pescado pulled on the reins. "Are you late for work or heading to town?"

"No, we're heading to the Serpiente Sea," Pescado replied.

"Under whose authorization?"

"Well..."

"Here's the damn rubies! Now let us through!" Minero shouted, holding out his hand. The elf strolled to Minero. He stared and held his hand out with the palm facing up. Minero dropped the rubies into his palm and glared. The elf nodded.

"The road's not paved yet," the leader said.

"We've ridden these routes for years!" Pescado replied.

"On your way then."

The road became a mucky trail with overhanging branches and cobwebs. Rain sprinkled. The cart rocked from pothole to pothole, as the mule trudged forward. Minero pulled a pipe from his shirt and filled the bowl with tobacco. He struck a match and inhaled.

"Now this is more what I'm used to." He exhaled a waft of smoky perfume. "Do you want a toke?" Minero asked.

"Why thank you."

"It's fresh from the garden."

"Smells lovely." Pescado inhaled. "I hope they get this trail paved soon."

"Why is that?

"The potholes are hard on my cart and I can travel at twice the pace."

"My legs and back are thanking you, but I have six less gems."

"We'll make up for it with a full load of salt and fish and still be home in time for dinner."

"That's right. Fresh salmon will be delicious." Minero and Pescado laughed.

Half an hour later, the mule stomped from the trail to the crusty beaches of the Muerte Sea. Three elves stood beside a pile of salt. A road was paved in the direction of the elf town. Two dwarves were shoveling salt into a cart.

"Not another toll fee."

"I'll see what they have to say."

The mule trotted up to the three elves. The leader addressed Minero.

"You're here for salt I assume."

"We're on our way to the Serpiente Sea," Minero replied.

"What for?

"Fishing."

"There's plenty of fish in town. And we do need carriage for the salt."

Pescado turned to Minero. "Tell you what Minero. I have enough time to make two trips to town with these roads. I'll pick you up on my return trip with your bounty of fish and give you a ride to town. Take my rod and can of worms."

"Alright let's start loading up," Minero replied.

"There's a fee for the salt and it includes loading..." the leader said.

"What? You've got to be kidding?"

"The fee includes road usage, loading and salt. All of which will be reimbursed to you in town with a decent profit. I suggest you register in town and get a license."

"Minero I'm in a bit of a bind. I, I can..."

"It's alright. I can cover it." The leader motioned for the dwarves to load the cart.

Minero turned his back and opened his pouch. His arms shook as he sifted through the shards for the smallest gems.

"Are you hiding something?" The leader asked.

"No. Here." Minero handed the leader two rubies.

"You're not seriously planning on sailing across the Muerte Sea are you?"

"Yes I am," Minero retorted. The elves laughed.

"Why don't you buy your fish in town like everyone else?"

"I can do my own fishing."

"Alright then, it's another gem for the use of the communal boat and do be careful. The waters can be awfully rough at times."

Minero waved goodbye to Pescado and strolled to the dock. He removed a fragment and handed it to the elf. The boat and dock used to be shared amongst fishermen. Now, four larger boats floated beside a new cedar wharf. Minero placed his possessions in the boat and rowed.

The Muerte Sea wasn't actually a sea. Nothing lived in its depths. In fact, it was a salt lake that was fed from the surrounding mountains. Minero was heading to a secluded fishing hole, on the edge of the lake, which overflowed into the Serpiente Sea. The turbulent waters below usually yielded plentifully. Minero stayed close to the shoreline to avoid high winds.

He arrived to a wharf and docked. In the far distance, across the lake, stretches of blue and white tipped mountains formed a pastel painting. Eagles glided overhead and on occasion swooped down to the rough waters below. Gulls formed patches of rippling white on the water.

Minero walked to the edge of a twenty-foot precipice carrying two rods, a can of worms, and his lamp. The sun would filter through the clouds for three hours. The paved road had saved him an hour's light. A gleam of yellow shone across the waters to his pot of gold below.

Minero sat on an old stump, untouched by elf intervention, and wormed his hooks. He removed his pipe and loaded the bowl. Two puffs eased his mind of life's worries. He lowered the two lines into the water and placed a rock over each rod.

Minero pulled fish after fish from the ocean's depths and laid them to rest in the bottom of the boat with salt. With two worms remaining and the sun setting behind the mountains, Minero lowered his lines one last time. Within moments, the rods shook. Minero looked to the water, but the sun's glare was intense. He pulled without concern for the weight was negligible. Then he stood aghast, staring at two tiny serpents, not bigger than his hand.

Minero grasped one of the creatures in his palm. Their glinting eyes evoked the legendary stories of mythology. Minero carefully removed the barb from the serpent's mouth and placed the creature into his jacket's pocket. He did the same with the other and prepared to leave.

As he stepped toward the boat, a dark shadow enveloped him. Minero knew that it wasn't dusk and turned. A serpent was rising from the waters, twenty feet above him, at the edge of the precipice. Dark bloodshot eyes opened wide. Razor sharp fangs were exposed.

Minero stumbled backward and tumbled into the Muerte Sea. He lay in darkness in a foot of water preparing for death, until salt burned his nostrils. Then he struggled to his feet and reached for his dagger.

The serpent's head extended downward with its mouth wide open. A chainsaw of dagger-like teeth dripped with saliva. Steaming saltwater sprayed from both nostrils. Two paddle-like appendages expanded the serpent's width to fifty feet.

Minero was blinded by darkness. His fumbling fingers reached into his jacket's pocket seeking his dagger. The tiny serpents slithered between his fingers and splashed into the Muerte Sea. Minero reached again. This time he grabbed his pouch and ripped it from his hip.

He raised it upward like a swordsman's strike. Glistening fragments of ruby sprinkled to the sea in the darkness of twilight. In his palm, the fiery red giant ruby glowed like a burning ember. The serpent stopped within inches of Minero's hand and bellowed.

"Where did you find my ruby little one?"

"Your ruby... I mined it on the high banks above the river."

"Give it to me and you may live!"

"But the king will pay me handsomely for it... Maybe even enough to retire."

"You've caught enough of my fish to feed an army!"

"With the might and calluses of my own bare hands!"

"Who do you think corralled them to your fishing hole?"

Minero looked for his dagger, but it had slipped from its holster when he fell. He shook as he realized that he had no other option. He lowered his arm and opened his palm. The ruby shone enough light to reveal the scaled underside of the serpent. A dagger scar was below its chest.

"Here! Take it then!"

"A wise decision my little friend. You can fish here whenever you please."

The serpent grasped the ruby in its jaws, raised its head to the moon, and swallowed. The legend of dragons was reborn, as two massive wings soared into the darkening sky. Minero paddled home to tell the tale.

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