Never Ever Give Up
I was born in the early fifties, when poodle skirts were in, Raquel Welch was a real babe, and all the pretty girls had hips and tits, by God! The great war was over and the boom was on. It was the age of the S&H green stamps that you pasted into books. I remember that they came in cartons of Lucky Strikes, Chesterfields and Camels. The grocery store featured Folger’s and Chase & Sanborn coffee. Everybody drank coffee. Butcher shops were everywhere. Bakeries were everywhere. Little mom & pop drug stores were everywhere. The Eisenhower interstate highway system bill had been passed and roads wider than had ever been seen before were being laid down--in concrete! The drawback was that there was goddamned road construction everywhere.
Benny Goodman was the favorite of our parents’ generation. Country was King and the crooners were fast coming up behind. The rat pack was out there wowin’ the babes and taking Vegas by storm. It was the era of Burl Ives, Doris Day, Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole. Marvellous stuff.
Comics were three cents or five cents, I forget which. It damned near put me off my feed when they went up to twelve cents! Gas was thirty-two to fourty-seven cents a gallon in the early sixties. All this sets the scene for the childhood of a reprehensible little bastard named Tony French. That’s me.
I was raised Catholic, along with my younger brother and sister. Our grandma and grandpa lived with us. We couldn’t get away with a damned thing in that house. Grandma had this little six foot bullwhip with knots in the end. It didn’t take much for her to lay into you, let me tell you. She was a mean woman. Mean.
We were raised Catholic, with the big ‘C’. Jesus loves you, God’s gonna judge you and reap your soul, the Holy Ghost watches you masturbate and you’re going to Hell. Yeah, like that. I went through CCD, Confirmation--all that crap. Mom made us go. There weren’t any promises made for after that, and I didn’t let the church door hit me on the ass on the way out.
Anyway, I worked from the time I could hold down a job. I had a mission. I wanted a car, then an apartment, then a house. I never let a chance to make money slip through my fingers. While I was in High School I shovelled sidewalks and driveways, delivered newspapers and cleaned windows. I raked leaves. I mowed yards. When I was sixteen and got my license I bought a clapped-out wreck of a Chevy pickup. I delivered bundles of newspapers, firewood, groceries and every other thing I could think of.
Dad was a Union man, and not all there since coming back from the war. He slept with his china teeth in because he thought that they might not be able to get them into his mouth after he died and he wanted to look good for Saint Peter. I desperately needed to get out of that house. It was a pot just a flash from boiling over and I didn’t want it to take me down with it.
I was driving around after school one day when I spotted it. It was a used book-mobile. The library district was dumping their bookmobiles because of the insurance liability. It was eating them alive. I saw one that was built on a Bluebird bus frame. It had eighty-some thousand miles on it, which was nothing for a school bus, and bookmobiles aren’t driven very hard. It was just old. I did my thing and wandered in like I didn’t have a care in the world. I offered them twelve hundred for it. I walked out with the title! They were so anxious to get it off their hands that I probably could have gotten it for five hundred, dammit!
I’d taken auto shop I and II in school, and gone on to take the III and IV-level courses at the county vocational training center. I could do any drive train work, electrical work or body work, most suspension work and I squeaked by with a little frame repair and upholstery. I knew that I had my work cut out for me to get that thing into shape. We had a huge back yard. I parked it next to the back fence and gave it a detailed examination. The power train needed a full dissassembly and reassembly, the running gear needed a thorough inspection and the electrical system needed a complete rebuilding with new insulation. I bought a good random orbital sander and a few big packs of wet paper. That garish paint job had to come off, and it had to be repainted before winter to keep the shell from rusting. It definitely needed new tires and fluids. I moved that thing to one end of the property and poured a ten foot by sixteen foot slab to work on. I needed something to keep a rolling jack from sinking into the ground under load.
The old man yammered away like a chihuaua with a cob up its ass. He finally asked/yelled at me, “What the hell did you buy that damned wreck for, anyway?” I snapped back “To get the hell away from you before I punch you into your casket, dammit!” He backed off, chewing on his teeth like he always did. I remember watching the muscles of his cheeks bunch and relax, bunch and relax. “Yep. That’ll do it.” He patted my shoulder. “I didn’t get along with my old man for shit either.” He turned and walked away. He shut up! From then on he actually gave me sensible advice on how to proceed. He’d been quite the jack-leg mechanic back in the day, but they’d used hickory axles and chain drives on the gravel trucks when he was in his twenties!
I tore down the differential and the rear bearings. After re-packing the bearings and replacing the brakes it was fine. The tolerances on the differential were within spec. Just for the hell of it I repacked the universal joints as well. Those little needle bearings weren’t worth recovering so I replaced ‘em all. It’s damned touchy work using a hammer and a piece of scrap wood to reassemble a universal joint. I flat out replaced the standard transmission with one from a school bus that had been rear-ended. It had died with less than twenty thousand miles on the odometer.
When I went to the junkyard to pick it up I about creamed my britches. There they were--four camping trailers that had been on a delivery van to their sales lot when the driver got caught in a twelve-car pileup down south a ways. They’d been there for a couple months and were taking up valuable space so I offered two hundred for all of ‘em. I got ‘em too! I drove each one home at about twenty-five miles an hour as the axles had taken hits and the wheels quivered. I had my interior furnishings, kitchen, heater, bathroom facilities, black water tank, fresh water tank and appliances! I even had propane tanks! I sold the carcasses to an RV dealer for more than what I bought them for.
I was gearing up to rebuild that engine when I had an idea. I remembered that low-mileage bus that I’d taken the tranny out of. Why not swap engines too? After all, I knew that the engine would fit the transmission--that’s where it came from! I borrowed a tow truck and got busy. About a week later I turned the key and watched my new drive train do its thing. Brilliant! I got all the old book shelves torn out from its bookmobile days. I peeled off the interior walls to replace the insulation. I screwed in new sheet metal for the walls and got the appliances moved in but not hooked up. A coat of white primer on the body got it ready to close down for the season. I had to concentrate on work and making money for a while. I did nothing but work and think about floor plans, water stacks, black water flow, tank placement and kitchen layouts for four months, from snow in around Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day when it started to green up again.
Propane-fired refrigerators and freezers had just come on the market, and I’d lucked into some in my salvage. First I framed the interior walls, then I ran the plumbing and electrical. Twelve volt mains made sense because the only thing that needed 112 volts was the air conditioner. It was huge, and hung off the rear of the bus on a reinforced shelf, along with the propane tanks. Installing compression fittings and flaring the pipe was easy. I quickly picked up how to sweat pipe joints for tees and valves while using an asbestos pad to keep from setting the place on fire. The heater needed 12 volts for the thermostat and fan. The lights all over the living quarters were 12 volts. All the voids were packed with pink fiberglass then I stapled visqueen over everything. Finally I was ready for the panelling. That went up easy.
I put a trucker’s air-glide seat in place of the original driver’s hard bench. They’re much more comfortable. I had the whole thing painted silver-grey with blue-grey highlights. Dad even said it looked like a million bucks once it was finished. I didn’t tell him that it assessed at 300,000 dollars and insured for that. I’d moved my stuff out of the house and was sleeping in the camper, running off an extension cord and a garden hose. I was buying canned goods, paper towels and cleaning supplies for the thing as I could afford it. Dad gave me a sawed-off twelve-gauge and taught me about cut loads. If you cut the case most of the way around just at the hollow part of the plastic wadding that holds the shot, it’ll all hold together and not disperse until it hits something. That old shotgun looked a little funny with front and rear sights but there it was. It sat in a holster just above the gas pedal. That old bus had ‘vane’ windows--you don’t see ‘em much anymore. They’re triangle-shaped and you can turn them to pull lots of air into the cab once you get going. They make dandy firing points. They also made cars and trucks easier to break into! Busses, not so much because they were so high up the body and the door was too far away to mess with the door lock from those itty bitty vanes. They were designed to be too small to get an arm through.
There was a queen bed in back and a lot of drawer space. A little closet was put in for hanging things like coats. A deep couch turned into a bed when the back cushions were removed. The bathroom floor was sealed with hand-laid fiberglass and had a drain in the middle of the floor. It didn’t go to the black water tank, it fed to a Y-diverter that ran outside but could be sent to the black water tank. I installed a siphon and pump to fill the hot water tank that was mounted up high for a gravity-fed shower and for washing dishes. I installed a little 12-volt heater in the tank with a thermostat to shut it off at 130. I purely despised cold showers and that was my solution. There were little 12-volt fans everywhere to lessen the demand on the air conditioner and to make the heater more efficient. Two of them were also was set up to suck the hot air out of the kitchen as well as the stinky or humid air out of the johnny and purge it outside.
It was late spring and I was about to stretch my legs. I’d really put on some muscle while rebuilding that bus and I’d grown into my height. I was ready for some time on the road and had no problem handling that steering wheel or the standard transmission. My little brother and sister begged to go with me until the blood came from their eyes. After an OK from the parents we headed for Louisville and the Kentucky Derby.
I rented a spot on Jockey’s row before leaving home and pulled in four days before the race. We had a grass pad, water and electric. If we wanted to dump the black water we had to go to a central station. I dug a hole in the sandy soil just below the grey water outlet. We made friends with a lot of the jockeys and the handlers. We volunteered to help exercise the horses. My sister about wet herself. I had to admit, the horses were beautiful and athletic. Most of them were pretty high strung, though. I bet five hundred bucks on the most grounded of them. I gave him a double handful of cracked corn before the race and told him “You just do what you gotta do. You win this and you’ll be dickin’ mares until you fall over dead.” He stomped a little and looked like he was about to bear down. The trainer was about to give me hell until the jockey said “Don’t bother. If he understood that nobody’s gonna pass us!”
Well, Dust Commander won handily and I cleaned up at the window. I shook the jockey’s hand and gave the horse another double handful of corn. “I hope your dick holds out.” He looked like he was ready to do it all over again!
My brother about pissed himself when he saw what I won. The bet paid off at 15.3 to one. My sister Helen--well, after the put her up on the saddle for a lap around the course I wouldn’t need headlights to see by on the way home. Her teeth would guide the way.
Before we left town we had a problem. An idiot in a brand new Lincoln Continental slammed into my beautiful camper at nearly eighty miles an hour while we were at a dead stop waiting for a light to change. After all the crashing and grinding was over all I could hear was his braying laugh. I saw nothing but red. I kind of remember kicking out the emergency window and walking over to his Lincoln. He stopped laughing after I punched my fist through his side window, grabbed his throat and dragged him back out onto the asphalt where I proceeded to bounce his head off the ground with great persistence and a desire for retribution. “BAMF. You fucked up my ride. BAMF. My third of a million dollar ride. BAMF. You could have hurt my brother and sister. BAMF. You can’t hide from me. BAMF. You won’t outlive me. BAMF. I’m gonna kill you slow motherfucker. BAMF. BAMF. BAMF. BAMF.” People were doing their best to pry my fingers off of his throat. I responded by squeezing harder. I heard the most amazing pops and squelches as the cartilage began to collapse. I became aware of two fists pounding on my shoulder. “NO! NO NO NO! He can’t pay you back if he’s dead, dammit!” I relaxed to find Helen, my sister, at my shoulder. I wrapped her up in a hug so tight she wheezed and whacked me again to get some air. I turned and looked at the idiot on the ground. “This is my sister. If she’s hurt because of your foolishness I will hang you upside down then take a tree saw and start at your crotch. If I get through your hips you didn’t talk fast enough.” The young rake fainted.
I looked up at the news cameras around us. “Get me a lawyer. I want this drunk motherfucker in jail. I want every penny he ever made and every penny his family owns. If he ever drives again I promise before God to cut his hands off.” It went out live at the end of the Kentucky Derby coverage and made the syndicated news that night. I had lawyers climbing my socks to get in on the action.
Young Steven Bullitt had hosted his last party. After the damages and penalties were counted his family committed him to a mental institution for the terminally debauched. Of course, it wasn’t actually called that but if smoke is in the air then there’s a fire somewhere.
The three French’s enjoyed an up-scale hotel while the camper was rebuilt. Another three million dollars were added to Tony’s account directly from the legal judgement. He was also paid a hundred thousand for a television interview featuring the pounding of young Mr. Bullitt’s head into the pavement, and Tony’s monologue while he did it. It certainly pounded the last nail into the ‘Great Gatsby’ mindset and poisoned the waters against the Kennedy’s drunken escapades a few years later.
After a thorough inspection by a knowledgeable eye Tony signed off on the rebuild job. It had taken almost two months to get everything back into shape. They filled up the fuel tank and headed back home. They arrived without any further problems.
After Tony handed his brother and sister off to his parents he paid off his parents’ home loan. He sat down one morning for coffee and pastry with his mom and she had her say. “When I saw you on national TV beating that boy like a drum, then threaten to carve him up like a christmas turkey I thought they were going to lock you up and throw away the key. But then you called for a lawyer to sue his ass. You did good. People saw you as the good guy. You were defending your kin and in Kentucky, that says one hell of a lot.” She hugged me and cried a bit. Now Ma doesn’t usually get that emotional but right then I didn’t care. She settled down after a bit and I could see her put it behind her.
“So, what are your plans now, Mr. Rich Man?”
I sat down at the table across from her and watched her light up a Marlboro. “Depends. If I’ve still got a bed here then I’ll park the bus, put the batteries on a trickle charger and get a job. There’s money to be made and it won’t drop into my pocket without me asking it to. I need to get somebody to put my money in the bank to work, making more money.”
She nodded. “Good answer. Good times always turn to bad times and having a cushion only makes sense. You gonna get married? Raise kids?”
I shook my head. “Everyone around here is going to learn real quick that I’ve got money. I’m going to have to go where they don’t know me to find a woman that isn’t looking for a meal ticket. I’ll wait until after the news dies down and people forget the face on the TV.”
I blushed when she said “You better wrap your pecker before you get it wet. Otherwise you might find yourself at the altar, daddy. Men have been caught before like that, lots of times.”
The best plans all seem to go to hell. The good news was I got a job in a plastics plant working 7:30 to 4:00, pulling down a regular paycheck. I went from press-man to journeyman tool-and-die in a few years. The bad news was I just didn’t feel comfortable in that house anymore since I’d had it out with dad. I took twenty-three thousand out of the bank and bought a little two-bedroom house located on a cul-de-sac. It was built on a slab and had a deep back yard. I moved in without much in the way of furniture. I didn’t want to take any more out of the bank than I had to as it was making me more money. I slept in the bus until a couple paychecks came in to buy things. Then it sat in the back yard, wired and plumbed to the house utilities.
My little Chevy pickup finally gave it up for Jesus. I found a little blue Toyota pickup that had good gas mileage and not many miles on the odometer. I got crap at work for buying Japanese until I showed around an article saying that they were being made in Dearborn, Michigan.
I stayed with that job for just over seven years. I had my union papers and license as a tool and die maker. I spent my week-ends working over the bus to get it into shape. I bought food and suplies for it and generally got it ready for the road. I talked my sister into living in my house and paying me a hundred bucks a month in rent. If she got married I was going to flat out give her the deed as a wedding present.
I headed north to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I’d liked that area ever since I was a young sprout and the family took a vacation up there. It was a large city for the area. Just East of the city was a town called Altoona which was away from most of the noise and traffic of Eau Claire. I looked for some property right off the blacktop. I respected the winter in the area too much to live on a back road. I bought about an acre of wooded land on a bluff above the lake, just East of Altoona and had a top-grade four bedroom pre-manufactured home installed on a slab--a house designed for the local climate. I also had a large heated garage attached to the house big enough for a couple of cars or trucks, the bus and a tractor or big truck with a snow blade. It only seemed like common sense to buy a couple of chest freezers for the garage and fill them up. A local butcher had good grain-fed angus yearling. I bought a half and had it cut and wrapped. I did the same for a half a pig. a pickup load of bags of frozen vegetables filled the voids in the freezers. (I used wire baskets in the freezers to keep everything separate. Otherwise finding anything in them would be like--like an archeologist digging for lost civilizations.)
A big thousand pound LP gas cylinder provided for the kitchen, the central heat and the water heater. The time period was the early seventies. Land was cheap at the time so I invested quite a bit, especially around both sides of the lake where the views were excellent. It seemed to be a rule that land always appreciated in value, and I wouldn’t have any close neighbors that way. The people at the local granary let me know about some farmers wanting to lease land to raise crops. I had several fields among my new properties, and let them for a bit less than the local average, as long as they’d only raise crops of hay or clover there. I didn’t want to have tenant farmers deplete the land raising corn and then abandon it. I spent about three quarters of a million dollars on property all told.
I got another job as a tool-and-die worker and machinist in another plastics factory. I knew the work and fit right in. Then I started wife-hunting. I went to church and to church functions. I didn’t go to bars or casinos because those weren’t the kind of women I was trying to hook up with. I went to nice restaurants, theaters and shows. I didn’t go to operas or concerts because, again, those weren’t the women I wanted to marry. I told the church Father that I was on the market. He suggested that I attend some of their mixers and dances. I agreed, but first I took dancing lessons. I didn’t do too badly. I danced with several women and learned to talk to their eyes. I even learned how to compliement a lady without either mentioning her tits or her bottom. I wasn’t a master at it, far from it. However, at the mixers a lot could be forgiven because both parties were after the same thing.
I watched the newspapers for mixers that weren’t associated with the church to expand my chances. That’s how I met Charlie. Charlene Thomas. She was a twenty-two year old farmer’s daughter. I was a twenty-six year old machinist. She was five-nine and a little husky, with shoulder length sun-streaked hair and dark blue eyes. I was six-one, strong and could work all day. I thought we made a good couple and so did she. She was impressed that I kept two chest freezers full of food and a clean house. I didn’t tell her about the cleaning crew that came by every Monday. She was goggle-eyed at the bus. I gave her the grand tour and jokingly said, “You ever make me sleep on the couch and it’ll be in here. Who knows where I’ll wake up.”
I was invited over to Sunday dinner to meet the folks. They lived just down the road, on a large dairy and beef farm South of Augusta on highway G. I dressed in a jacket and slacks, not a suit. I found out that Charlie had two younger brothers that were still in high school. We all got along well once they learned that I worked with my hands for a living. I told them about rebuilding the bookmobile into a camper just after high-school. I found out about life on a dairy farm. It was all quite--organic, if you know what I mean. From getting thigh-deep in rancid silage, to getting decorated by the manure spreader I quickly figured out that it wasn’t the life for me. They had to work a lot harder for their money than I did. However, they stayed solvent and managed to add something to their savings accounts each year. They raised chickens, sold eggs and sold some fresh milk at a premium. They’d never go hungry, either.
Sure, I visited, and even helped out as I could on the weekends. I could drive a tractor so I helped with the haying in the summer and picking rocks in the spring. (The ground freezes and heaves up rocks to the surface over the freeze/thaw cycles throughout the winter. Once the mud turns back to dirt in the spring you go out and pick the new crop of rocks so that your expensive machinery doesn’t get eaten alive.) A lot of it was a good time.
Charlie and I got married. First, however, I talked to a lawyer. I had most of my money set aside into a trust. In case everything went belly-up I wanted to be able to walk away with what I came into the marriage with. I kept out two hundred thousand dollars in a savings account. The rest was put to work making more money. I instructed the lawyer to not even send quarterly notices to my home. I’d come to him. Then I bought an eight thousand dollar diamond ring and popped the question. She kept me hanging for all of seven seconds before she stopped looking at the ring and figured out she had to say ‘yes’ to keep it. I got tackled like a walk-on Freshman quarterback at a Junior-Senior Varsity game.
It was early October and the leaves were beautiful. We were married in front of a bunch of farm folk and my family, in this little Methodist church. My mom must have been a bit dissapointed that we weren’t married into the Church (note the capital ‘C’) but she didn’t say a word. As soon as they got into town I asked all four of them not to say a word about the money. Mom and dad walked around my place, taking it all in with my brother Harry and my sister Helen walking behind us. It was a million-dollar view out over the lake. I got approving noises about the tractor with the snow blade and the two chest freezers. All dad had to say was “You need a machine shed.”
I nodded. “Yep, she’s a farmer’s daughter. I’ll bet she’s gonna want a garden from hell. That means attachments for the tractor and a big compost pile. Maybe even a green-house for forcing in the spring, around here.” Mom said “Oh, yeah!” That’s when I started worrying about where to store produce. I had to find out fast if Betty and Carl (my new inlaws) canned stuff. If so, their daughter no doubt would want to as well. I’d have to bring it up with Charlie later. We’d have over half a year to plan before planting season.
I got two weeks off of work for the wedding. I gave Betty, Charlie’s mom, a copy of the keys to the house and we took a plane for Niagra Falls for our honeymoon. I think that there isn’t anything to see in Niagra falls for a reason. It promotes the birth rate. Well, we talked some, too. We talked a lot! It seemed like all the time we’d spent together befor the wedding was spent dancing around each other. Now that we were hitched we got down to the nitty gritty. Neither one of us liked alcohol all that much. She could cook better than I could. Her mom was a canning fool but Charlie purely despised it. She wanted a small garden and some herbs, but way under an acre. We decided to put in a heated greenhouse off the kitchen as soon as we got back, before the ground froze hard. We both liked grilled food so an indoor grill with a fume hood was going in. I didn’t see any reason to cut down what God preferred to grow in our lawn. She laughed and asked that we keep some paths clear. I said “Why not put in ground cover. Creeping evergreen stuff?” That got an okay. She wanted a dog. I agreed if it was an outside dog. Ma liked little yarfies and I learned to hate ‘em. They’d bark like the world was coming to an end if the neighbor two doors down slammed their screen door ... They were totally insane.
Charlie wanted to go back to school. I’d be at work all day and she needed something to do to keep from going crazy. I sympathized. We had enough in the bank to send her to college in Eau Claire so she could sleep at home at night. She about threw a rod when I said we had the money and it was okay to spend it. I told her that I had two incomes--one from renting out the fields and one from being a machinist.
“You’ve got land???”
“No, WE’ve got land. about two square miles of it, mostly prime house sites around the lake, but there’s some nice fields in the mix too. Enough to make about thirty thousand a year in field rental fees. We’ll take a tour when we get back.”
She damned near cut short the honeymoon right there. I think that I quadrupled my value in ‘solid catch’ material right there. After that night we needed about a quart of Vaseline intensive care and a couple days to rest up. We spent the time making up lists of what do start on when we got back.
We actually did go back a bit early. I wanted to take her out to the county campground in the bus. She loved it! I could see some trips to Northern Wisconsin and up into Michigan’s U.P. coming soon.
We got the greenhouse construction underway, and the machine shed too. We agreed to put up a big pole barn rather than paying for stick-built construction. I had it primed and painted dark brown so that it wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb. We bought fresh eggs and milk from her folks every week. I didn’t want to set a bad precedent. We paid for everything. I didn’t want any bad blood between us.
We had a river-stone barbecue installed at the side of the kitchen and a fume hood put in place above it.
We bought two big dogs, a male and a female. We had a doggie door put in so they could sleep in the heated garage. Their food and water were dished out there too. They were huskie-something mixes. I didn’t want them in the house because with that long hair they’d have to shed like a snowstorm sheds snowflakes. I tried to keep all my campaign promises, you see.
Once the crops were in and the fields were bare we fired up the bus to drive around to get an idea of what properties we held. With a county platt book in her lap and the elevated viewpoint of being in the bus it made the task a lot easier. Most of the home sites we could just drive past as there weren’t any driveways yet. The platt book told the story though. Almost each site backed right up against either the lakeshore or a precipice above the lakeshore, providing the “million dollar view” that builders and realtors craved. The fields were easy to spot and seemed to go on forever. I thought about buying an insulated set of coveralls, boots, a hat, gloves and a rifle. I owned the land and deer tags could be had two ways--licensed or traded for--under the table. Deer season was coming up. I’d have to talk it over with my in-laws as they knew the county fish and game people and what sort of foolishness they’d put up with.
Over the winter Charlie went through the material we picked up at the college. She decided on a degree in accounting and a minor in food science. I thought that it was an odd combination myself, but I kept my fat mouth shut. Any day that you can avoid an argument with your wife is a good day. We put down the deposit they wanted for the spring term and got her enrolled. I thought about that garden and saw it as money going to waste. Why not plant a couple acres with rows spaced for the tractor’s tires? A cultivator would last for years and there was nothing wrong with picking up a few bucks at the farmer’s market every weekend. I had a pretty good marinara sauce recipe and when tomatoes came in, they came in like gangbusters. Canning tomato sauce was easy if done in small batches, say six jars at a time. That many mason jars would fit in a canning kettle. Scaling up from there was a pain in the ass. I’d done it before and forgotten to sterilize the canning funnel first. I’d never seen room temperature spaghetti sauce in a sealed jar bubble before or after. We buried that batch in a deep hole in the back yard.
I bought a hunting license and sighted in my new rifle. I walked a few likely trails just before deer season and looked for sign (turds). The plastics company shut down for the first day of deer season. I took two small bucks, one on my ticket and one on Charlie’s. (She wasn’t into hunting but she liked venison just fine.) The roll-up plastic sleds for kids made great deer drags to get the carcasses out of the woods. That 30.06 left a hell of a hole though. It made me glad that I went for head/neck shots. It would have torn up the torso meat quite a bit.
I planned out the garden, bought a cultivator and arranged for a load of compost while the ground was still hard. We raised a few flowers in the greenhouse over the winter, but I was planning on taking over most of it for seedlings in early April. Jiffy pots make great starters. You transplant the whole thing and you don’t have to worry so much about transplant die-offs.
It was the off-season for nurserymen. They were delivering firewood and that’s about it. I talked with one guy about various evergreen ground-covers. I was smart enough to bring Charlie in on the decision. Well, it became HER decision. We (ahem!) settled on a bright green juniper called Calgary Carpet. I would have decided on a darker foliage but Charlie liked the idea of everything smelling a bit like lemons. He’d clean out where we wanted the garden, cover it in eight inches of compost, roto-till it in, run a few paths in white limestone and cover the area between the house, machine shed and out to the blacktop with juniper plantings, up to the tree line, for just over ten thousand dollars. Charlie blanched, but he did the math for her, and covering over a quarter acre in evergreens was expensive! We signed the contract, making the guy very happy. I pre-paid the man so that he could get the plantings on order. That way his supplier wouldn’t be left hung out to dry with an order of that scale. It was unusually large for the area.
The investment would take a long time to recoup, depending on how I valued my time. I saved the time to maintain the yard, the expense of the mower and the fuel, plus I got a healthy discount on the garden prep work.
The college semester started in January. We kissed and went our separate ways after breakfast, then met again back home in the evening, after dark. I watched the papers for auctions, estate sales and farm sales where I might be able to buy cheap and sell dear to antique shops or rug merchants. We ended up keeping a few pieces for the house that made the place more comfortable. A couple of Persian carpets seemed to make the place a lot more friendly. I moved the bus out to the machine shed to make room in the heated garage for the stuff I bought for resale. I didn’t want any critters to get into the upholstery or the rugs, while the bus doors sealed just fine
On the weekends that I didn’t go to sales I headed to Madison or Minneapolis with a truck full of antiques in high hopes of making a buck. I didn’t do too badly. The carpets did very well and so did antique dining sets. I did this thruought the winter and spring. I ended up working six or seven days a week. Charlie went to school five days a week, came home early and made dinner. On Sundays we either went to the sales together or stayed together at the house, cleaning or relaxing. We kept trying for kids but she didn’t catch. Fertility specialists weren’t popular or numerous at that time, and we figured that it just wasn’t our time yet.
Come spring the ground dried out and the greenhouse was full of seedlings. The nurseryman prepared our garden and made lots of little holes in the ground that he put potted junipers into. He was out watering them every other day for two weeks and called the job done. Oh, he got the walk-ways dug out and paved in limestone too. I thought it looked pretty good, myself. I took a few pictures and sent ‘em to Mom.
I fenced in the garden before I planted. I wanted to discourage the four-legged foragers. I used six foot tall welded wire pig fence in the hopes that it would keep out the raccoons. The dogs helped out quite a bit by being noisy. The farm bureau said the middle of May was a pretty sure bet for vegetable gardens around there. I spent a couple long days planting celery, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, melons, onions and hot peppers. I bought a little 50 gallon tank and boom watering attachment for the tractor. The days were long enough then to allow me to water the garden after work.
July and August were hot and dry enough to resume watering the garden. I didn’t want the harvest to catch me unprepared. I bought my mason jars, a big canning (boiling) kettle and a big propane double-burner rig with stock pots and lids. I set up a production line in the machinery barn. I had to buy sugar, garlic, oregano, tomato paste and red wine for the recipe but the tomatoes, onions and peppers came from the garden. Cheap box wine did fine. Charlie tried a test batch and declared it better than store-bought. I shrugged and grinned, saying my ‘thank-you’s, but a good spicy vodka sauce is hard to beat, too. We bought a little table a lot sturdier than a card table, a couple of folding chairs and a sun canopy, filled the back of the pickup and spent most of our Saturdays talking to folks at the farmer’s market and selling most everything we brought. To sell the cabbage I made up a little batch of vinegar/sugar slaw and handed out little paper ketchup cups of it with the recipe on 3x5 cards. I always cheated a bit and added a little ground up celery seed to the mix. The little bit of bitterness helps the slaw, I think. Sundays we picked and I made sauce. As the tomatoes really started coming in we picked most every day of the week and when I had enough to make a batch, I made a batch. I labeled and dated each jar so I could identify a bad run. We had a lot of salads that summer! So did Charlie’s family. They grew their own patch but they liked that marinara sauce too.
Soon it was the end of August and the university classes were starting up again. We didn’t see as much of each other and we were both tired out by the end of the day. A crock pot with a timer on it made our evenings a little nicer. There was less to do as far as cooking and cleanup. This went on week in, week out. On our anniversary I surprised her. I’d cleaned up the bus and gotten it ready for the road. We headed North and East for the national forests up near Lake Superior. We both took off a week to recharge our batteries, with the understanding that her mom would keep the dogs in grub while we were gone.
That’s how we spent our time, year in and year out. The bank account slowly grew until it was close to three hundred thousand dollars. Charlie graduated school and felt lost for a while. We talked about it, but we didn’t come to any real resolution. We were dealing with her feelings here, and she was the only one that had a say in it. I may have been her husband but she was a very independent-minded woman. After playing twenty questions we figured out that she wanted a job but didn’t want to work for anyone. As for going into business for herself I told her she needed to figure out a product or service that people would buy. We went to the library to investigate local business opportunities. Northern Wisconsin wasn’t known for trendy clothing or boutique culture unless it was around the ski areas. It had a fairly low-income population that focused on necessities. Businesses associated with the tourism industy were the only big winners and even they were all cyclic in their income patterns. (feast and famine)
With all our research it boiled down to this: the only local business models that had a buy-in of less than a million dollars and had a steady income were gas stations and diners. She got this gleam in her eyes that boded no good. I needed to get her to slow down and think things over before she rushed headlong into some flash in the pan business that may fail within months of opening. I brought out the big guns. I talked to her mother. I let Betty know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t want to see the healthy beginnings of our retirement fund dissapear in a flash of wishful thinking. She did her best to calm me down and said that she’d take her daugher in hand. In her words, “I taught my daughter the facts of life once, and damned well can do it again!”
Within a week she seemed to come around but she seemed dis-spirited--melancholy. I sat down with her after dinner one evening and asked her what the problem was. She said, “I feel that I have so much potential that I’m wasting by just being a wife! I should be doing something to help with the finances, not just cleaning the same floor over and over again.” I sat back, somewhat stunned at her viewpoint. I had done my best to give her a relatively care-free life and it turned around to bite us in the ass. I thought for a bit, remembering what she seemed to enjoy when she was in college. “What if you went back to school for your CPA and took a couple more courses in taxation. Farmers and businesses need tax accountants. We could set up an office for you here at home or buy a property downtown for you to work out of. If you kept your cooking skills as a hobby rather than a profession you hopefully would keep enjoying it rather than it being a drudge because you had to do it for an income. Your hours should be pretty flexible except for January to mid-April. You could even buy into an existing business rather than striking out on your own and trying to develop your own customer base.”
She looked surprised, then thoughtful. Soon she was smiling. She came around the table and perched in my lap. We smooched for a while. Someone’s gonna get lucky tonight!
We found out that UW Eau Claire had a graduate level MBA track. There wasn’t much focus on taxation under the university’s MBA course listing but the department chair was amenable to crediting a student with courses in taxation under the semester hours necessary to get their MBA certification. They had some courses in simulation, fraud detection and ethics that appeared promising as well. It was a two and a half year degree with a requirement of thirty semester-hours.
We’d been together seven years. Where were our kids? Did the stork get lost? We talked it over, then went to a fertility clinic that I’d heard of in Rochester Minnesota. I did my bit to provide a squirt of go-juice while Charlie was put under while a doctor used a camera with a flexible probe looked around inside her insides. After a dye injection and an X-ray they figured out the problem. Her fallopian tubes were naturally blocked. That sure gave us something to think about. Did we want to try in-vitro fertilization? It was risky in that it required an operation to harvest her eggs. She was very gun-shy about surgery. I didn’t blame her and after imagining myself in her place I sure didn’t press the issue.
I brought up the idea of adoption. I thought that adopting a little boy or a girl of school age would mean someone would be at the house almost all the time that the child would. She wouldn’t hear of it, which pissed me off. We went back home, greatly discouraged.
When we got back and told her folks about it her mom carried on as if someone had died. I suppose that was when Charlie began thinking that she’d failed or something. She didn’t ask for sex any more, and our happy times of sitting with each other and a little light petting went away. She began spending more and more of her time at her parent’s place. I guess she had her fingers crossed when we exchanged wedding vows. I sat down with her and brought what we had to the table as man and wife. What I thought of as a set-back that we could work around she saw as the end of everything. It seems that I totally mis-judged her. That woman had the spine of a dead jellyfish. It appeared that she’d never really been challenged in her life. I laid it out for her. Either she decided to buckle down and deal with what she’d been delt and honor our marriage, or to divorce me and go back to living under the protection of her parents.
She took the cowardly way out. She stomped on our vows and abandoned my love with eight sheets of paper that were served to me at work. Her lawyer tried for an ‘equitable split of the assets’. I put a stop to that right away, with proof that the land and house purchases occured over a year before I met Charlie. I produced receipts pointing out that she did not contribute to the household expenses, but was one, as I had funded her college education and later her CPA from my job as a machinist. Unlike her lawyer that was obviously working for a percentage, mine billed by the hour. He persuaded the judge that a woman that gets an expensive education while her husband works in a factory to pay for it, then abandons him immediately after she got her certificate didn’t deserve any further recompense. Of course he left a lot out. However, I kept my mouth shut. The judge ruled in my favor. The ruling had a timer attached, however. The judgement would be final in twelve calendar months.
I took the bus to a place that worked on Semis and school busses. They went over it with a fine-toothed comb. The laws had changed since I’d rebuilt the thing and required a grey-water holding tank. The holding tank, refrigerator, heater and stove were replaced, and the air conditioner was swapped for a newer, more efficient model. I had a small deep-freeze installed as well. The batteries were replaced and all the fluids changed out. I loaded the nicer Persian carpets onto the bus all rolled up, and moved to a trailer park. The dogs went with her as well as the contents of the chest freezers except for the little bit that fit in my camper’s new chest freezer. I had a cleaning company give the house a good working over then listed the place, fully furnished, for twice what I bought it for and put into it. It sold in a couple of months. I got more than I thought I would--I accepted a bid of over one and a half times my investment. I kept the deeds to the fields and the undeveloped properties. I had the lease payments from the tenant farmers sent to the management company watchdogging my assets. Anything left over after the taxes were paid and the trust fees taken care of were wired to my working account. I made out a check for half the cash I got from the sale of the house and mailed it to Charlie’s dad. I quit my job and sold my truck.
I was barely thirty years old and had no idea what to do with myself. I had about three and a half million in the bank and was depressed as hell. I sat at a table in a hotel bar with a pad of paper and a pencil. I listed my talents, interests, preferences, dreams and goals. Then I turned it around and listed my defects, hatreds, distractions, dislikes and avoidances.
Idiots with influence over me rubbed me the wrong way. There was no other way to put it. I wasn’t really interested in the fairer sex after my little misunderstanding that began at the wedding altar. I was good with my hands and patient with things mechanical. I worked best alone and was interested in metalworking of a more primitive nature.
At about the fourth beer I decided to buy some wooded and stony property down by the dells with one hell of a view and a driveway fit for a mountain goat. There I would have built a timber-framed skeleton of a house, garage and smithy then pay masons to build me a place to live and work in made of big, thick limestone blocks. If a delivery truck, a 4x4 and my bus could get back to it, that was enough. There was a place called Centaur forge in Burlington that had the blacksmithing equipment I wanted to buy and could provide the classes to teach me the skills. Mostly drunk on my ass I headed for bed.
Thick headed, I rose and showered. Prepared for the day in clean clothes I headed down to the hotel restaurant with my pad of paper. It got sort of illegible down towards the end but I puzzled it out. I sort of pictured it in my mind’s eye. I smiled my way through breakfast and tipped well. I gassed up the bus and headed down the road for LaCrosse Wisconsin, near the North end of the Dells.
Boy, was that a beer-drinking city! The brewery had silos painted to look like beer cans! I hit several realtors and described what I wanted. I wanted it to be undeveloped, on a stone bluff overlooking the river and covered in trees and brush. The more inaccessible the better. I found a few hunting cabins for sale but they were usually on too small an acreage to attract me. I ran into two that were over ten acres in size. One had a town across the river from it, the other didn’t. I picked the one with the pristine view. I bought the place and arranged for an easement that I could improve to get back to my property. I had high-resolution aerial photographs taken at different times of the day to get an idea of the land’s topography.
It was May and everything was greening up. I hired a surveyor to lay out a road and a site to build out. A guy with a bulldozer flattened out the road and cleared the building site for me. He got a team in to line both sides of the road with spiked-in landscaping timbers so that erosion wouldn’t maroon me. There were power lines running next to the road that paralleled the river. Getting service was a snap. I insisted on and got a buried power cable. I got a phone line the same way. Getting the well dug and the septic field laid were not so easy. There was too damned much rock.
I hired a contractor that had done churches and public buildings to ramrod the job. I had a good, long talk with his architect. He had no problem with a timber-framed skeleton under heavy limestone blocks. The roofing material was to be brown-dyed cement tiles. Concrete footers were dug out and poured, a timber-framing crew put up all the support structures and stone-topped concrete was poured for the floors. Once the limestone blocks were laid by the masonry team everything was sprayed with a surface anti-penetrant to eliminate wicking and to seal any voids. Then the windows, doors, interior walls, plumbing, wiring, insulation and inside sheathing went in. The house had three rooms outside of the utility room, bathroom and a coatroom that acted like an air-lock to outside with a door at either end. The garage was attached to the kitchen wall and the forge building was set off a bit from the house and garage. The garage was over-sized to store coal and stock for the forge. The place was heated by gas. The guy that filled the bulk tank said that I’d better get the tank filled in the fall or summer, as his truck would never make it up my driveway in the winter or the muddy spring.
I didn’t spare much expense. The kitchen spouted appliances with names like Wolf and Sub-Zero. I thought that the utility provided by a chest freezer and buying meat in bulk like I had done before was a good idea. A chest freezer went into the garage. The outer walls of the whole place were just over eighteen inches thick and took a while to heat up or cool down. I bought heavy, dark Edwardian-style furniture to match the massive feeling of the walls. It was early September before the place was ready for occupancy. I moved most everything out of the bus, then took it into town to store. I bought a fairly large 4x4, a Ford F-350 with a blade and an electric winch that would handle the local winter and my driveway easily.
I stocked the kitchen, filled the freezer and settled in for the winter. I explored the town and made a nuisance of myself at the library. I was at wit’s end trying to keep myself busy, to tell the truth. I contacted Centaur about classes. They were shut down for the winter but had plans to start up again in the spring. I ordered their catalog and bought a few of their books to wrap my head around the whole process of building, stocking and using a forge.
I learned that a gas forge was easier to weld over, and sources of wrought iron were few and far between. I then learned that most older bridges were made of wrought iron! I began a mail campaign over Michigan, northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, writing to the public works departements of each county, offering to pay for several tons of wrought iron as it became available from their really old bridges being replaced. I got Centaur into the act as well. They bought quite a bit to re-sell to other blacksmiths.
I bought most everything that I’d need for the forge, including a big belt sander and a gasoline-powered cutoff saw for breaking down large stock into working sizes. I limited myself to a 120 pound anvil so that I could lift the thing. It went onto a stone plinth with a felt pad between the anvil and the stone. I used a star drill to bore holes into the stone so that I could bolt the anvil to its mount. I followed the instructions that I read on getting the anvil mounted at the proper height. The forge itself had a two-stage electric blower instead of a bellows. I knew that I’d need smaller tools as well, such as hammers, tongs, chisels, a swage block, a knee vise, files, hardie tools, cutoff tools and more. I thought that using a locking dog that I’d seen on a woodworking table in the hardie hole of the anvil to hold a workpiece steady was brilliant. I practiced drawing, splitting, offsetting, welding, cutting and punching. I wanted to have many of the basic skills down pat on my own rather than pay to have someone else watch me screw up as I learned.
I made a few things, such as a table knife, fork and spoon. I went through several iterations until they looked good to me and felt comfortable to my hand. I made a fireplace set that looked pretty good too. I learned how to make a strap hinge. That was a bit tricky! I tried to make a sheath knife out of cable damascus but each attempt kept falling apart in my hands. I finally bought a billet of damascus steel and made my knife out of that. Handle-making for a blade takes a few tries to get it right. By the time I learned to use a warm block of wax to form an impression of my grip and match that, I’d gone through four damascus billets. Arrr. The sheath was dead easy to make by comparison. I molded wet leather into shape, punched the holes and used a saddle-maker’s double-needle stitch to close it up. A thick piece of leather stitched between the halves of the shell kept the edge from cutting through the stitching.
Spring rolled around. I bought and packed a suitcase, gathered up my books and what things I’d made, locked down the place and took off for Burlington, Wisconsin. I wanted them to evaluate my skills before I signed up for any courses. The drive went easily but took most of the day. Burlington was way south east near Lake Geneva. I rented a little apartment and located a laundry that took in work. Smithing is dirty work and a practitioner goes through a lot of clothes, daily.
The classes had very little classroom time and a hell of a lot of lab work. Learning the working heats of various alloys was interesting. I learned that my failed cable damascus experiment was a usual result if the smith wasn’t using a very hot gas forge and a drop hammer. I learned how to use and maintain a Little Giant eighty pound power hammer without injuring myself. It takes a surprisingly strong grip to keep the workpiece from flying across the room. I investigated in buying a fifty-pound power hammer. I had a place for it and could run the three-phase 220 easily enough. That’s what contractors are for!
All in all I took four full-month courses there then left for Texarkana Texas where they were holding the fall hammer-in. It was a knife maker’s school. I drove across several states with a brand new gas forge in the back of my truck.
There were less people there than I thought there would be. Still, they didn’t have enough forges set up for the people that did show up. We got together and set up my new gas forge running off of a one hundred pound propane torpedo while one guy went home to pick up a fifty-pound anvil and a water-bucket. I had my roll of tools with me. I went to a hardware store for some 2x4 stock and pounded together a working table. I was ready! I learned a lot there, and it was pretty specialized stuff. I made a knife as long as your forearm. It wasn’t pretty because I didn’t have access to a belt sander, but I put it in a vise and three people hung off of it. After half a day at a sharpening wheel it passed the rope cutting test. (sever a hanging one inch hemp or manila rope in one swing) Not bad for a newcomer! I was inducted into the knife maker’s guild. We shook hands, packed everything up and headed our separate ways.
The crated up Little Giant was waiting for me when I got home. I called my contractor to install the big bastard, to install the gas forge so that I wouldn’t blow my ass off trying to do the job, and to install and vent a Franklin stove in my living room. If you’re not looking for an antique, a lot of home centers carry them nowdays. I got a couple face cords of hardwood delivered and had the bulk propane tank refilled while I re-filled the refrigerator and chest freezer. I hung a hook bar up high in the kitchen, then spent some time making kitchen tools. I sent away for the proper steel billets and bought a liquid nitrogen quenching setup. I’d learned a few things about cooling techniques and crystal formation. I knew that I’d be running through sanding belts like crazy so I bought them in bulk. I bought handle material too--lots and lots of stabilized hemlock, hickory, oak and osage orange. I bought Chicago screws and solid copper rivets to hold the handles together. Epoxy is a knife maker’s best friend ... Nothing irritates a person like a loose knife handle.
I cleaned up that first big knife I’d made, then shaped the handle. It became my go-to kitchen chopper. Next I made a set of steak knives. I super-cooled them after forging. When suspended from a bit of nylon fishing line they’d ring like bells when tapped. I found and bought a book that had the patterns for various hand tools, like gouges to use on a lathe, timber-framing chisels and draw-shaves. I made some beautiful pieces. The trouble was the prices. I broke down the cost of the materials, tools and training then added twenty dollars an hour for my time. There wasn’t a one of them that I could reasonably sell for under two hundred dollars. I just kept making things for my own pleasure, like the vine and leaf design frame I made to cover the front door of my house. I spent several months with the plans for a buckboard wagon, forging all the parts, cutting the lumber and putting it together. I wondered if I could do it, and I did! Of course I didn’t know what to do with the damned thing after I finished it. I sold it to an Amish family for five hundred bucks. He was dumbfounded when he found the forging marks on the parts--even the wagon wheel rims.
One fellow at a bar told me about the reenacting or rendezvous movement. I thought that it was pretty cool. I had a trailer built with a full coal forge setup inside, a big area for working stock and fuel, a tiny little hand-truck sized propane-powered fork truck and a small living space. It was big--I had to buy a semi tractor and studied to get the CDL license to drive the thing. I started following the big rendezvous circuit. I had a lot of fun and sold some of my high-end work to people that knew what they were looking at and were willing to pay the price. Some people just want the best and are willing to pay for it. I know, because I’m one of them. I took a lot of orders for an early-American camp knife done in excellent steel. You could butcher a pig, split your kindling, carve the spit and split the carcass with that one knife. There were a lot of tomahawk makers out there. I made a good bearded hawk and let that talk for me. I made a line of neck knives out of blued surgical steel. I farmed them out to the more inventive people I’d met for beautiful handle work and sheathes.
One asshole decided to do a snatch and run on my high-end inventory. I had a beaked staff near my work-space. He didn’t do much more than collapse and scream when I tore through the back of his knee and separated the joint. Oh, the state’s attorney tried to lower the boom on me. That’s when I brought out my price lists and materials costs. We started talking felony theft and interference with trade. The judge looked at my hands. He asked, “You hand-forge all your pieces?”
“Yes, your honor. Some go for thousands if they’re nitrogen quenched.”
He was puzzled. “Show me some of your top-end work.”
I grinned and requested that the baliff bring me my sheath knife.
“Watch this.” I suspended the blade from a little nylon monofilament and tapped it with the edge of a quarter. It rang for nearly two minutes. “This is a two thousand dollar knife. The crystal structure is damned near perfect. It took me years to learn how to do this. This work is my life.”
The judge sat back and thought it out. The kid got twelve to eighteen, no early release. I got a shit-pot of new business. The judge bought a short sword in a cane!
I swapped a few blades for quill-worked sheaths and for a few seed-beaded sheaths. I didn’t sell the best of those. I slowly was building a fancy little display or museum of my own.
I belived that the rendezvous circuit was the way to go to keep me occupied. I had friends, something to do and folk that appreciated my skills. I bought a sixteen foot tipi and learned how to set it up. (Damn, if that wasn’t a cluster fuck.) Sure, I sold a lot of pedestrian stuff like braziers, grid-irons, camp cooking tool sets, S-hooks and half-inch bar stocktent stakes. I did some decorative work too. I had a fixed grade of work that I did at rendezvous, and a much higher grade that I did at the shop with the gas forge and power hammer, under more controlled conditions. I worked with a leathermaker to put together bracers of throwing knives in harness leather. I made and sold short swords and long swords that would ring like a bell if suspended and struck. They were tough, strong and devilishly sharp.
One fellow contracted me to furnish him silver arrow heads and bullets. I made many arrow heads in the traditional style from old dimes and quarters, then came upon an older style used to defeat armored knights. The arrowheads looked like slant-faced chisels, some four to six inches long. I made a few for a specific buyer then the demand took off like gangbusters. The Crecy arrowhead was my best seller, but only in silver. I tried to make the thing in blued steel with deep fullers filled with coin silver. They caught on as they cut better and yet had the ‘punch’ of the silver filling. One of my customers offered to bring me out to where my arrowheads were being used. He insisted that I be armored in chain mail. I’d been playing with a twisted-link welded chain mail for years. I had forged myself a knee-length hauberk of titanium-silver chain, a high-quality sword for the right hand and a sword-breaker for the left. Over my chain I bore a sam-brown belt covered in eight inch throwing knives. I carried a short bow and two dozen arrows with my improved Crecy heads. I also carried the common soldier’s standard load-out of an oil-cloth, a blanket, some rope, dried beef, corn meal, salt, a full canteen and a poncho. I felt like a pack mule. I knew that I would have to shed over half my load if combat came my way.
We walked through a passageway that made my eyes feel odd. Then I was faced with a horse the size of a short Buick. I was encouraged to mount the thing. I endeavored to arbitrate before commiting myself. “If you don’t try to kill me then I won’t bite your ear off.” For some reason we went off famously after that. I was surprised at the load that the poor animal was willing to endure. I told it “Please go where you’re supposed to. I’ll do my best to see you watered, well fed and wiped down whenever I can. On my honor.”
Two days later we found ourselves in a field camp. I remembered my pledge and did my best for my steed. The fodder was scarce but I gathered what I could. An older man in a grey-brown cloak asked me “Why don’t you call up your feed?”
I replied, “Because I don’t know how to do that. I pledged to do my best by my mount and I’m damned well going to do so.”
He pulled back a bit, then considered me. Considered. What a word. He evaluated me. Once done he handed me a small book. “Sleep with this beneath your head. Let none other see it or know of it. Your life could depend on this.”
I had no idea what he was speaking about. All I could do was to honor his request and in the meantime fulfill all my contracts.
In the morning I was much calmer. I approached my mount. “Thank you for your patience. I hope that I can now pay you back.” I waved my palm over the empty fodder bin and watched as it filled with moist kernels of mixed oats and wheat. I knew deep within me that a wild field of grain had just been partially harvested some twenty miles away and the result laid within his manger. There was enough grain there for eight horses. I’d over-done it, but that was a forgivable crime.
The next night I slept with the book beneath my head once again. I saw such images! I was confronted with a paradigm shift. When I awoke I discovered that something had decided for me that reality no longer had a fixed definition. I saw dragons flying overhead and nasty, small animals swarmed through the gutters consuming the trash and offal. I sure wouldn’t want to fall asleep in the gutter!
When the field commander found out that I was a smith he commissioned a pair of great lances from me. What did I know from lances??? What the hell. I got busy. I put out the request throught the sergeants for good metal. We found an abandoned farm with a forge still pretty much intact. I had to re-build the forge itself, reconstruct the bellows and discover a supply of charcoal and coal. I found a few rude tools buried in the cinders near the old anvil. I went to bed in near despair of turning out anything worth the time or metal.
Three short guys with robust beards and knobby hands brought me bags of ore. It was very dense--high quality stuff. They also gave me a small chest of what appeared to be chromium and nickel ores. I thanked them profusely. Several teams were sent out to find winter-killed standing hardwood trees, not more than six inches in diameter at the base. They took a long time but returned with six beautiful straight shafts, nearly knot-free.
My field expedient forge welcomed me. A fire sprite took up temporary residence in my fire pot and was eager to play with heats and chilling. Nothing felt beyond me now, yet I had to stay in control and sculpt the alloys and control the sprite to bend to my wishes. I was certain that these skills would take years to master. I began my work by forging rings to keep the lances from exploding on impact. A couched lance requires a specifically shaped hand-grip with a protective cup before it. The bands kept the wood from expanding and being destroyed from great impacts transmitted from the working end. The business ends of the lances were shaped to imitate the horn of the anvil, which I used to create cones to support the actual weapon’s heads.
I quickly learned to sing my recipes, bringing forth the sprites. The metals flowed and shifted in mute cooperation with my hammer strokes. I learned to sing intent and purpose into each of my forged creations. Razor-sharp yet robust scaled-up Crecy-style arrowheads graced all six of the lances. I was trembling and ready for a week’s rest after completing them. The commander must have had someone keeping a close eye on me. He walked into my camp and hefted one of the lances. He peered down its length and evaluated its weight, then examined the reinforcing rings. Finally he carefully examined the business end. He seemed greatly pleased. He motioned for a little bitty guy in black robes to come forward, then gestured at me. The little guy grunted, then tapped me in the chest, knocking me to the ground. Then he said some things that rang in my ears as if six people were saying the same thing at once. He put his palm over my chest at which time I screamed, arched my back and passed out.
After I awoke believing that either I had undergone a marvelous trip down the rabbit hole or my imagination, coupled with a severe fever had left me the victim of a surprisingly coherent set of hallucinations. I rose weakly from my bed, secure in my cabin, and felt the need for a good cleaning. I stripped down and had a nice shower, enjoying myself until I began working on my chest. I couldn’t help but notice a broad sensitive area spanning my upper pectorals. I turned on the bathroom light and stood before the mirror. There, branded into my chest was a hand, fingers up and together with broad wings to either side. I explored it with my fingertips, noting various ridges and bumps. In the center of the palm I found a large rectangular lump beneath my skin. It seemed deep and solid, as if secured to my breast bone. I gingerly scratched at it. The skin peeled away revealing a flat-cut emerald the size of a silver dollar. I looked into the eyes reflected in the mirror. They were as scared as I was. I slowly got dressed and made breakfast. I noticed that everything was slightly lower than it had been before. The door-sills were lower and my clothing was a bit high-water. Just an inch or so on each leg and sleeve. The shirt didn’t tuck into my pants properly either. Either the house had shrank or I had grown. As a forty year old man it wasn’t usual to undergo a growth spurt. I shook my head and wondered what else I’d be surprised with.
I padded out into the cold with a big mug of coffee in my hand. The forge lay cold and forlorn. “We can fix this! I call upon fire!” Within moments the coal forge was up to working temperature and the stones of the forge creaked as they sought to compensate for the rapid shift in temperature. I was taken aback at this new ability of mine. I resorted to tradition. I picked up my large hammer and gave three great, thunderous strikes against the anvil, the traditional ‘driving out the devil’. I frowned as the proportions were off. I’d built the forge and anvil plinth so that the anvil face and hammer face would perfectly meet at the height of my elbow. Now it was four inches low! I sighed in exasperation and headed into the woods with a timber saw to find a big cedar tree. I needed about a fourteen inch circle of wood sections laid on their ends and bound together in something resembling a wagon wheel rim to put under the anvil. I had plenty of cedar on the property and harvested a decent sized log. I made cuts with my saw to part together a disk of wood some six inches thick. I carefully measured the circumference then forged two bands and hot-struck them onto the disk. I knew that the disk would compress over time to grow thinner. I put it in place and bolted down the anvil once again. I could always raise the floor a mite with rock or timber until things settled down. It had taken a good part of the day to get my forge back to the way I wanted it. I banked the coals and went back to the house to cook dinner and see what the rest of the world called news.
I slept ‘hot’ that night. I tossed, turned and sweated until I tossed off the covers and opened a window. I had to turn off the heater because it strove to warm the place against the draft coming in from outdoors. I finally felt comfortable and slept in just my shorts. By morning the temperature inside the house was thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit.
Come the morning I rose, stretched after a wonderful night’s sleep and took a shower. I didn’t even notice that the water heater was off. I had toast and coffee, then headed for the forge. I had a gate design in mind and wanted to draw it out before it escaped me. It was an intricate thing in swirls, circles, serpentines and sigils. The sigils had to be done carefully in several metals. The top of the gate would be sharp as a razor blade. The gate posts had to be somewhat special as well. They each needed a sigil at their crowns and would be bedded quite deeply into the rock. I ordered the specialized materials required and got busy forging the basic structures. I worked on it to the exclusion of all other projects until I brought forth my apprentice work. I buried the mounting posts deep within the rock and mounted the gate. Once it was in place I felt the need for a key-post or king-post at the center of the compound. It was an evil-looking thing. It was a threat and a promise of violence cast in steel. A great thunderbird capped it, its enormous wings casting protection over its territory while warning away enemies. After I finished dressing it and set it in place I sat back and marvelled at the paths I’d taken to give me the ability to bring forth such a thing...
I found myself waking up at midnight each night for several weeks to forge and decorate figured spikes that I pounded into the ground about the periphery of my property, marking its extent and defining my borders. Somehow I knew that the king post recognized each stake and consolidated its responsibilities as I went.
On the day that I buried the final stake a fast-moving thunderstorm blew in and blasted the king-post several times with bolts of lightning. It didn’t deform the thing, no--not at all. It merely brought up the wards. What told me this? The little book that kept appearing under my pillow, that’s what. I practiced contemplation and tried to understand what had so abruptly and thoroughly side-tracked my existence. I finally despaired of understanding what was happening. I gave myself over to long walks in the mornings. During my explorations I found myself in a clearing surrounded by very old trees. Within that glade was an old carved stone some three feet tall, thee feet wide and eight feet tall. I could faintly see lines like script carved into the thing. I knew it to be an altar. I sliced my hand and filled the dish at one end with my blood then lay down on the slab to cry on the shoulder of whatever god or spirit decided to look in that day. I had my young ass rung like a bell by another lightning bolt, then I was taken in hand to show me what I had to do in the near future in order not to screw up. I quickly learned what I had to do then tucked in my horns and started a new mantra--”Please don’t hurt me. Please dont hurt me. Please don’t hurt me...”
I had been given a brutal introduction into a new reality. I was but a tasty little fish in a dark ocean full of hungry predators. I felt like digging a hole and crawling into it, but after a while I realized that I was too small a meal for the real nasties to waste their time to dig me out. I resolved to make myself even more expensive to crack open. I spent almost two years turning my warding ring into a triple defense. Each successive ring built on the powers of the one before it. The ability to construct and power a fourth ring was beyond my ability. I couldn’t even concieve of the sigils necessary to forge into the stakes of a fourth-level ward. I rather suspected that few others on the planet could either.
The mailman and various delivery men never noticed the wards. They were immune from the powers surrounding and defending my home. I did have a sturdy fence installed about the property and my formidable gate was integrated into the defenses and blocked the driveway. That stupid little book seemed to have more pages than the Encyclopedia Britannica. I set about reading it from cover to cover and never seemed to gain any ground. Oh, sure, I understood what I read and I read prodigiously. I spent much of my days studying that thing yet part of each week was set aside for working at the forge. I needed to keep healthy and happy that part of myself that smithing spoke to. I instinctively knew that the peak of my art would be expressed through my talents at the forge. All my skills seemed to reinforce each other with tongs and a hammer in my hands.
I invested in a longer cryogenic quenching trough. I thought that I had enough skill to produce a thousand-layer sword as the old Japanese sword-smiths had done centuries before. I used the gas forge to blend and pour the billets of brittle, high-quality tool steel, then matched them with lengths of soft, ductile wrought iron. After that I put aside my time at the forge to prepare myself. I ate well and slept myself out for days at a time. Soon I was ready.
Using common borax as my flux I welded the billets together then bent them over and fused the halves. I did this over and over again. Each moment that I worked with the steel I thought at it, “What is the best you can be?” I made the required ten folds to produce a thousand-layer blade. I gently shaped a thick spine thinning down to a hair-fine edge, then layered the spine with thicker clay than the body. The edge was just lightly coated. The whole thing was heated to a dull red and left to cool in the air to normalize the steel crystals. Then it was heated again and quickly quenched in liquid nitrogen. The blade drew back into a curve due to the differential cooling. I left it as is. It was proportioned like the old horseman’s blades that were later cut down for field combat. I had the length of arm to wield it properly. I spent weeks with polishing stones finishing the faces, digging and polishing the fuller and, most importantly, finishing the razor edge into one continuous bevel including the bull nose. I hung the naked steel blade by a shoestring and struck the hilt with a small hammer. It rang out with a pure note that made my teeth ache. I used a drill and cutting oil to (slowly, oh so slowly) bore out the peg-holes to secure the furniture. I designed a dark iron, silver and green-tinted copper wetlands scene into the guard and pegged a beautifully figured osage orange grip to the hilt. I wrapped the grip in the traditional hourglass pattern and used a router to create a white oak sheath for the blade. It had almost no hamon (blade markings) as I hadn’t pickled it to etch away the softer steel at the surface. I looked quite pedestrian.
In my pride I took it to the maker’s fair, or hammer-in that fall. I didn’t let anyone know that I had brought a sleeper.
The boldest test that they had was a four-inch sisal rope. My sword cut it without pause. It brought the show to a stand-still as everyone wanted to know how in hell I made it. I specified the equipment, steel billets, preparation, forging, claying, tempering and polishing. It was the work of a master smith and they knew it. There weren’t many master smiths alive yet I was welcomed into their ranks. We consumed much malt beverage and spit-roasted pig that weekend. I yet have fond memories of that time, these long years removed.
A slender, tall young man in Buddhist robes came to visit me that winter. He wished to test my blade. His ‘minions’ brought several tightly tied bamboo mats with them. I ushered them into the machine shed where I helped set up their targets. I offered him my blade. He carefully took it up and examined it, inspecting the edge from tip to guard then evaluated the balance and weight. He set himself just so, then struck firmly at his target. The sword passed so quickly and cleanly through the mats that he over-swung and came close to removing his own leg. His astonishment was evident. he bowed to me, quickly and repeatedly, then through a translator requested that a similar blade be forged for him. I smiled, then asked, “Of what character is your blade to exhibit?”
He thought, and chewed his inner lip for a while. He called over his assistants and spoke with them for an extended period. He eventually came back with what I considered a wonderful answer. “Honor.” I smiled wide and clapped him on the shoulder. “So it shall be. You shall have a blade that knows and recognizes honor. It shall refuse to act in retribution, in anger, in sabotage or from lying in wait.” I measured his proportions for the sword to fit his body. I agreed to forge his sword and have it ready for the spring court presentation.
He smiled like a child, then bowed and left, leaving me a business card with his name an internet address. How formal these Asians are when exchanging business cards!
I found a beautiful crane and wetlands illustration in a book. I copied it, then prepared the images for the guard and sheath from it. I forged the peace of the wetlands, then intensity of the hunting crane and the loyalty of a shepherd’s dog into the blade. I contemplated honor and loyalty as I forged the final shape of the blade. It seemed to come to life as I polished and sharpened it. I inlaid, laquered and assembled the final sheath. I had an agent deliver the blade and collect my fee. I had a bad feeling about that blade. People would die on its edge, and soon.
I became progressively more obsessed with my skills and the art that I pursued. I travelled on the rendezvous circuit under an assumed name, forging the simplest of tools for my fellow campers. I did not wish to invoke anyone’s doom by laying hand to my work without caution. Whenever I found myself humming at the forge I quickly stifled myself.
I eventually grew tired of living a lie. I returned to my home and forge high above the river. I had pictured in my mind an oval shield with a center beak and an iron-shod Dwarven-style double-bitted broad axe. I refused to limit my craft. I sang to them at every phase of their forging, decoration, tempering and sharpening. When finished I took them up and went into the yard. They felt light and responsive in my hands. The axe cut down a four inch thick tree in one pass and shortened its stump on the back swing. I cleaned them up and hung them next to my fireplace.
I began churning out arrow heads, spear heads and atl-alt spear points. I made very few for hunting things other than man. The boar spears were beautiful. I made matched pairs and hung a few sets on the wall across from my great axe. I sent away for an illustrated book on historical combat blades, from the great sword to the foil. I became enamored of an ancient Japanese weapon consisting of two short heavy handles surmounted by a sickle blade on each one, pointing out from the handle and not aligned with it. I turned out twenty forked glaives and twenty spiked billhooks. I could see in my mind’s eye their use together. It would be a meat grinder.
I ‘tuned in’ to the work when I made a scythe blade. I mounted it at the end of an eight foot staff with the blade pointed ahead of the shaft. Time seemed to slow when I swung it at a maple tree. When I recovered from the strike I had purple spots before my eyes, the tree was some twelve feet away while the stump was charred and smoking. I was laid out on my back. I paused to reflect on what I’d done to achieve such a thing. I spent a while filling a rack of twenty of them.
I wondered how to achieve a light-weight yet more protective field armor. Plate armor was great and would protect you from anything, if you’d trained in it for a decade and had a horse the size of a Percheron to carry you. I had in mind a chain mail hauberk that would extend to the knees reinforced with solid upper-arm guards hinged to a shoulder yoke, like a milkmaid’s yoke that fit behind the neck. I bought large reels of heavy chrome-steel wire. While I waited for them to arrive I made several sets of the hammer and anvil for the power hammer. Upon the faces I cut the pattern for a twisted ring. I used a jewler’s loupe and a fine graving tool to cut words into the surfaces of the dies, then case-hardened them.
Each ring would be embossed with two tiny spells of strength and protection. I’d have to weave them together on a dressmaker’s dummy then weld them into solid rings. I planned to weave vertical wires between the links with spells of endurance and dexterity etched into them. The yoke and upper arm guards went between two layers of the ring mail.
When I had it finished I put it on and went outside to test my limits. I climbed a tree while wearing armor, something that should be impossible to do even in boiled leather, the least of armor. It took over two months to fashion one jerkin. I set about fashioning more of them. What else did I have to do? As with anything practiced they became better as I gained more experience in crafting them. I found that I could temper them after they were made as I’d welded and not brazed the links closed. After making a dozen I made belts of fine titanium mesh for each of them.
As I stood and looked at them I realized that something was missing. They needed greaves for the lower legs and helmets. I made each one a helm with an excellent field of view. I spelled them all to aid the wearer with concentration, awareness and endurance. Likewise the greaves were spelled to afford protection, endurance and dexterity. I sent away for civil-war-style packs for each, then added a good wool blanket, an oilskin poncho with a long bill to protect the face, an oilskin tent and a hundred feet of rope. Each suit got a tinder box, a food bag, a water bottle, a spoon, a camp axe, a cup to eat and drink from and a guisarm-voulge, or heavy parrying knife that could cut firewood or split kindling. I returned to making swords--sabers with basket hilts. I made them strong, fast and hard to see in combat. I made many, many sabers.
I was getting low on funds. I sent out letters to other makers and several collectors that I was making combat weapons with unusual abilities. That teaser brought many to see what I had made. I knew that I’d have to put my ‘money where my mouth was’, so I set up a small range to test blades and distance weapons. I’d tied a red silk scarf sixty feet up a limbless tree.
My first sales came from a group representing a European collector. I first explained that I did not make wall hangers, I made combat weapons. They smiled and nodded. This excited them. I shrugged and brought out a scythe-bladed staff. When I swung it at an eight-inch thick dry stump and left a shorter smoking stump with a thin flaming disk of wood beside it, things got interesting. One of them request to try it themselves, just to verify that there was no trick involved. I handed him the staff-sword and let him have at it. He had the same result that I did. I spotted one man in the group with a build and height much like mine. I brought out a set of the mail and had him suit up. I pointed to the red scarf tied well up the tree and had him fetch it for me. He scrambled up that thing like a squirrel, untied the scarf and had it in my hand within five minutes. “Are you winded at all?” I inquired. He seemed amazed. “No! Not at all. In fact, I feel refreshed.” I nodded. “You’re going to need a nap and a good meal on taking that armor off. Trust me.” He soberly nodded. I got him around a big roast beef sandwich, had him take off the armor and left him in my guest bedroom sawing logs.
“Care to try swords?” I brought out a couple of my bespelled sabers. They truly didn’t look unusual. Two muscular guys took their pick and swung them about to get the feel of the blades. Then they set to trying to dismember each other. The blades became almost invisible when swung in combat. They couldn’t see each other’s blades to counter the strokes and damned near killed each other. I did a little stitching that afternoon. I thanked the Gods that they were talented and aware enough to pull their blows or it would have been quite grisly.
I had written down the time I worked on each weapon and enhanced chain jerkin along with its accoutrements, the materials and fuel cost then added in a decent percentage for my talent, skills and profit. I charged eighty thousand dollars for each scythe staff, twenty thousand for each saber and three hundred thousand for each chain mail jerkin with its added equipment. I mounted a dozen of my accuracy-bespelled arrowheads on good shafts and fired a few downrange. Down my one hundred twenty yard range. I had a pretty nice cluster of hits going in the ten ring. I had a presentation box of twelve special arrow heads. I’d made one extra just like the twelve for illustration purposes. That one arrow head I mounted, drew back and fired at the target. That poor target disintegrated as a bolt of lightning arced down out of a clear sky and blew it into smoking wreckage. “These have been ensorceled for accuracy and destructive power. I call them ‘Billy Jack shitkicker arrowheads’.”
They bought all the mail armor and a dozen sabers. I knew that they’d have big mouths and prepared for an incursion. I made another dozen “Billy Jack” arrowheads, two dozen atl-atl heads with the same spell mixture and eight throwing knives that I really, really didn’t want to drop. I then set about making myself another set of ring mail with even more spells laid onto it. Besides the set of spells that did such a marvellous job in the first generation of armor, I added horizontal wires charmed to reflect both spells and the effects of spells back upon the sender. I wore that armor everywhere except to bed and carried a scythe-crowned staff everywhere I went. I attempted to modify the scythe blade spell to allow it to penetrate spells as well as mundane material. I had no way of judging how well it worked, or if it worked at all. I just kept attempting to improve it and improve it. When I got to the point that when I picked it up and settled in for a swing it screamed like a racing-tuned V8 on nitrous I stopped trying to improve it. A noise like that coming out of a three-foot-long razor sharp piece of steel is damned intimidating, let me tell you.
I considered how to get sneaky. I bought a Timex watch and forged a fine mesh titainium watch band for it. I bespelled the hell out of that watch band to give the wearer incredible strength, protection, endurance and speed for a short period of time--ten minutes. Then I forged a shitty looking eight inch belt knife with the same suite of spells on it that I put on that final scythe blade. When I drew it, it just purred in my hand. I had to break it of the habit and make it blend in. That was really tough because I had to disguise the disguise of the disguise spells. Everything around it sort of ‘blurred’ a bit, but it was so diffuse that I hoped nobody would catch on. I carefully stitched two of my “Billy Jack” arrowheads between the layers of leather making up my shoe soles, with the points sticking out of the squared-off toes. I’d probably lose some toes or even my feet if I triggered them but if the shit really went down I’d probably be alive and could address the question of how to rebuild my feet at my leisure. That poor damned watch never did run right on that band though. I think it was afraid to tick or something.
I had a hostile visitor. I had no idea how that shit-head got through my wards, but when I opened the house door to see him winding up to lay into me I ran up to him at a great rate of speed and, I swear to the Gods that I channeled Ron Santo, and Whacked him with that souped-up scythe staff across the rib cage. Lightning reached for the sky from his corpse as his torso fell one way and his head&shoulders fell the other. There wasn’t much left but cinders and a little metal slag. He sure managed to deny me any information after he failed his mission. It took me several days to recoup from that burst of energy.
I carefully examined my wards. I found that he didn’t penetrate them as I’d feared. He’d keyed onto a small stone that one of the buying party had dropped and formed a gate with it as a focus.
I got an idea. I went back to the forge and created little ‘pocket wards’ that needed but four stakes and a central sigil on a buried disk. Unless you were tuned to the thing it would act like a gravitational land mine and send you up to where the air to breathe was but a fond memory. I put them in odd places around the grounds, making sure to protect doorways, windows and low places where sneaky people would try to use for protection. I was reminded of the cow catapults in a certain Monty Python movie.
After a nice meal and a cup of tea I realized that I had the ability and infrastucture to turn an opponent into frog-in-a-blender, but I had no resources in place to disable and hold an a spy or prisoner taken in combat. The book had been ranting on spells designed to confuse and distract lately. I decided to make it happy. I bought a small piece of property adjacent to mine and hired the bulldozer guy to make a fork off my driveway to the new place, and to generally match the ground plan there with what I had in place. Once he finished I placed blur and confusion spells on my home site and the place where the driveway forked. I pushed anyone coming up the grade to go into the wrong driveway The original driveway was bespelled to look like a limestone outcrop with juniper scrub growing out of it. At the top of the new driveway I had a cheap reproduction of my home built, and that of my outbuildings as well. Then I took care to build a level one shield about the place. Just within that shield I parted together a very powerful teleport spell that would stun, then move any intruders into one of three magically-neutralized cells that were sixty feet beneath the surface. Magical tasers are fun. If you can electrically isolate one foot from another it’s dance, dance city. Then it’s lights out and they wake up in a blacked out cell with running water and a shit pit.
I had plenty of deer on my place. I had spells track the deer, raccoon and birds to make sure nobody was slipping a number past me. I had bobcats visit once in a while but they didn’t stay long. Like the wolves, they were curious and wondered what the hell was going on up on the hill that made their hair stand on end. I was glad for the predators to visit to keep the goddamned rabbit population in check. I was sitting out catching some sun one afternoon when I noticed a bobcat sitting and watching me. It wasn’t stalking or hunting. I was in a good mood. I slowly walked over to near where it sat beneath a bush. I sat down. “You like it here?” It slowly did it’s cat stretch and laid down with its head on its paws. “You’re welcome here, you know. I can set aside places for you, either in caves or in my home if you wish to go so far. Food can be had and safe shelter. I will provide for you and it will be your choice.” I rose and went back to the house. There I thought about the house, the land and the mountain. I felt a place that would make a wonderful wintering cave. Soon I felt the changes in the rock and the new water seep within the cave. I turned to the house. A cave-like entrance had opened with a couple zig-zags in the tunnel which opened up into a small low-ceilinged bedroom. After a bit of exploration I found the human-sized door. It needed water. I frowned, closed my eyes and expanded my senses. Soon I heard a trickle of water and smiled, then opened my eyes. Other than the water drip and pool the rock room was barren.
I went to town for a couple bales of sweet hay for her nest. I asked the vet; “What do I feed a bobcat? There’s no such thing as Purina bobcat chow!” He goggled a bit, then caught himself. “Well, there’s big cat chow and that should do the trick. Make sure that they get wormed every three months and a good meat back-fill or their coat will get dull.” I clapped him over the shoulder. “Good man. Thanks.”
Little momma settled right in. She didn’t like a lot of petting but enjoyed the companionship. She wasn’t a familiar, just a welcome houseguest.
Then the owls moved in. It was amazing. The machine shed had six owls nesting in it almost overnight. They didn’t bother me or Little Mother. I supposed that the river had a lot fewer fish around our area. They ate a lot of moles, voles, rabbits and mice as well, so it was anybody’s guess. I hosted ‘em, I didn’t document their lives.
I figured that with all these carnivores any garden I planted would be safe as houses. I gave it a shot and did the veggie thing. I got tomato worms and slugs, dammit. I conquered them and had some nasty looking but very tasty veggies that late summer and fall. I had to harvest a few of the hardest-headed deer that insisted that if it grew, they were going to eat it. I rather insisted that I was going to eat THEM. Soon an arrangement was reached.
After certain judicious actions promoting my continued existence as an independent agent I welcomed an elf into my home. He was obviously a warrior born and bred as he appreciated the abilities wedded to my arms. I thought that he was going to soil his britches when he test-drove one of my early scythe-staves. He appreciated what had been done to the sabers with a snarky grin and went quiet over the pole arms. When he discovered that I hosted Little Mother and the owl brigade he loosened up quite a bit.
I showcased both types of arrow heads. The first batch, ensorcelled to strike any target in sight, was appreciated but he’d seen the like before. The second batch, the lightning bolt specials, left him aghast that such a thing was available to anyone with a deep enough purse.
Next, I did a little horse-trading. I could tell that he was a mage. I asked that he call forth the most refractory pillar that he could, of two hand-spans or less (twelve inches). He called and shook and sweated until a dark grey pillar stood in the exercise yard, some six feet tall, hexagonal in form. I asked that he sever himself from his work and stand back several paces. He smirked and did so, expecting me to fail dramatically.
I concentrated on utter destruction, then planted my feet, drew back and threw myself into that blade with my spell-breaker scythe blade.
I was thrown some eighteen feet away from the point of impact. Where the pillar had stood was a much shorter stub of stone, half melted and solidifying. The top portion was missing. The bottom was cracked into three pieces. My guest was some ten feet further from the wreckage, behind me. When I approached him and shook his shoulder he blearily stated, “I want one!” I ‘m afraid that I dissapointed him with a tool of a lesser ability, but once he understood, he agreed to take ownership of what I’d agree to sell him. He’d created the heart stone for a castle and I’d destroyed it. He no longer had any tests by which to gauge me. He acknowledged me as a master among elven smiths. I’d been elevated to a rather rarified level. I soon had access to many very old scrolls detailing spells and techniques unknown to modern practitioners.
I still made little iron pots and fry pans with little brass lids for the trade. I actually had elven shepherds come to me for my pedestrian iron wares as their enhancement spells were so subtle that others could not detect the glamours, and their forms perfectly fit their functions. I so enjoyed fabricating things that made people happy to use. I spent many decades doing such. Soon the other races came to view and purchase my wares and word of my workings spread. The fact that I dealt fairly and with honor among all the races went far to bring me both smiling guests and fair judgement among my peers.
I awoke late one night at the center of a charged circle. The watchtowers of the elements were alert and focused on me. I had no idea as to how or why I had been summoned. “Please tell me why I am summoned.”
“You are to be judged.”
“Then judge me.”
“Have patience. Many are in attendance. Your doom is being diced.”
Well, THAT was comforting! Fucking play dice for my thread! Fucking hell!
I settled down and realized that my actions had spoken for me and the word had been writ.
There were no explanations or expansions that would mean a damned thing. I would stand pat on my actions. My history would speak for me. If it damned me, then so be it. It was MY damned life and I accepted it. “Bring it on.”
I woked up lying on a couch in a library. Well, it wasn’t just a library. It was a many-floored library that stretched out farther than I could see in all five directions. I sat up and found myself sitting in front of a very tall Elf of indeterminate age. Once an Elf gets to be about eleven hundred years old they seem to lock it in for the long haul. He sat back in his wing chair observing me.
“What sort of place is this, please?”
“Oh, it’s my library.”
“You must be a prodigious reader.”
He smiled. “No, rather I’m an author.”
I peered at him, took a good look around and peered back at him. “You must be quite an expert to pen all these. What subjects do you specialize in?”
His smile spread. “Magic.”
I stupidly repeated, “Magic.”
He lightly replied, “Yes, I suppose that you’d call me the source of authority.”
I dropped to one knee in obesiance. “Lord.”
Oh, do get up. I got tired of exhibitions like that ages and ages ago.”
I had the feeling that when he said ‘age’, he really meant ‘age’! I sat back down.
I had to ask. “Have I done well?” After all, I was his to judge.
He pursed his lips and brought his fingers together under his nose. Soon he replied.
“All in all I feel that you have done quite well, especially for naiive, unguided or self-guided talent. Some of your applications have been refreshingly unanticipated. I particularly like the ‘springboards’. Amusing, that. You incorporated some time shifting into your scythe blades whether you know it or not. Elegant work there. The pedestrian things like the pots and pans that you’ve been churning out by the basket-full have gained you the trust and reputation that many others envy. Good work there as well.
You need to expand your horizons. Do you think I powered the watchtowers with my own personal energy? You must scry into the deeps of the oceans, the depths of the Earth and the reaches of space. Scry into the Sun, into Jupiter. Scry into Pluto for a rude awakening. You should get a feeling for the Earth and a feeling for the plants. You have begun to do this with the animals yet you have a long way to go.”
I gulped. “Will I live long enough to do this?”
He laughed. It was the first time that I’d heard him laugh. It was--interesting. “Oh my. I thought you knew. Once you achieved a certain level as an adept your body gained its own awareness of the powers. You are quite self-sustaining now. However I wouldn’t go spirit-walking or plane-walking yet if I were you. You haven’t developed the ties to Gaea that would be necessary to use to drag you back if you got lost or in trouble. The planes are interesting but incredibly dangerous. They offer viewpoints that can kill the uninitiated and unwary.”
That was enough to put ME back on the school bus headed for home.
“I won’t muck about with your skills, abilities or tendencies. You’re doing well enough not to get yourself into real trouble unless hubris forces you. Stay paranoid.”
“You had to be judged at this time because it’s where the next big step should occur in your abilities and power. Don’t let me down. Don’t make me come hunting you to take you out.” He sat back in his wing chair and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Before long you will need a familiar or a thrall to keep you well-adjusted--sane. You must stay in touch with humanity because you still walk on the bottoms of your feet. Remember the lesson of Caligula and be afraid.”
I passed out. Soon enough I woke in my own bed. I rose, performed my ablutions and made a cup of tea. I took a four pound beef roast out for Little Mother. She would bear her kittens soon and would need the food. I sat in the dirt and watched her growl and purr over her meal. I somehow reached out to understand what she was, where she came from and where she was going. After finishing her meal she licked her muzzle and paws clean, then lay back to drowse in the spring sunshine. I felt her satisfaction with life. It was a revelation. I turned my attention to the barn and singled out an owl. He was dozing in the summer sun yet roused enough to say to me, “Welcome. This is how things are. Respect this.”
I was shattered. I went on with my day attempting to comprehend that animals were wise, accepting and at ease with themselves and others. I strove to find my place in their world. I dared not attempt to force them into mine. A few days later while working at the forge I felt things ‘click’ in my mind. I always was and had been a part of their world. My acceptance of it was what took the time. I had gotten in my own way!
I purchased what was called an English Wheel, a large tool used in automotive body works to gently curve panels. I pounded out a platinum dish, then used the wheel to bring it to the smoothness and shape I desired. I had a solid stone pillar brought in that was two feet in diameter. This was my plinth. I set the bowl upon a short walnut cylinder carved to fity the bottom of the dish and placed that assembly on the stone block. I then filled it with sweet oil and lit a lamp above it. I had my scrying table. At first shapes would form in the oil fostered by the smoke of the lantern. Soon I learned to cast myself into the dish and see anywhere I wished about the Earth. I witnessed great storms at sea and among the mountains of Nepal. I watched schools of fish beneath the waters. I dove deep, deep beneath the surface to places where light never shined. I felt the life in the depths whose heartbeats measured in hours. I found the cradles of life in the undersea volcanic vents where new life furiously fought to continue living, breeding, evolving. The engines that drove Gaea were relentless and powerful.
I felt the plants. I felt the trees. I had never done anything like it before, but I changed into a cedar tree. I felt the rains, the sun, the winds, the heat and the cold. It was some four years later before I found myself in the form of a man again. I came back with a new appreciation for Tai’Chi.
Little Mother remembered me and introduced me to her tribe. I greeted each of them and fed everyone until they drowsed in the sun like little lions. I found that I had a new ability. I could succor and aid plants. In a few short weeks my garden looked amazing. The plants told me what they needed and I provided it. It was a most efficient cooperative endeavor.
The wolves visited. They greeted Little Mother and her tribe then came to pay their respects. They sensed the changes in me and left unconcerned.
I was worried about attempting the next step. I had no mentor, no guide and no advice. I was going on pure intuition and gall. I scryed deep into the earth, at first bathing in and relishing the layer linking life to stone--the places where the earth was fertile and gladly supported the life of the ecosphere. Beneath that, though, lay the lithosphere. There ponderous, slow layers of stone shifted upon each other, compressing their neighbors into more and more refractory materials. Beneath that lay the plastic layers, where stone was not solid and was not liquid but flowed and adapted to the needs of the planet. Subduction zones pulled down hardened surface stone into the depths where it was recycled into the slowly dancing core deep below.
As I percieved each succesive layer my mind expanded in viewpoints and concepts. I undertood enough to feel the uncaring, indifferent power and relentless motion of the planetary core. The only forces that could interrupt such an engine could break a star. On a deep, subliminal level I heard/felt the planet churning, spinning, throbbing and pulsing down the ages.
The planet rang with a characteristic note. It was so low in register than nothing human could directly percieve it. The throbbing ring of the planet sang out an enduring paen of promise--a promise to endure.
I stayed in bed for several weeks after that, internalizing what I’d heard and felt. I finally rose from my filthy bed, cleaned up, ate and did the laundry. My dreams were filled with visions of gigantic forges, heated by volcanic seams and operating great hammers powered by the tides. I realized that I had to take great care at the forge forever more lest I loose something that could not be stopped nor set aside. When I looked into my eyes in the mirror they glowed with the color of molten rock. I no longer needed to fear the heat of the forge. If I had need, my fist could serve as my hammer and my fingers as my tongs. I spent many long weeks this way attempting to reproduce the subtly ensorcelled pots that I had fashioned before. I spent many a long hour at the forge re-learning a delicate touch both at the forge and in my spell work.
I recalled reading “The Hobbit” and took delight in recreating the Mithril chain hauberk, the belt covered in green-yellow gems and the ensorceled short sword bearing leaf-and-vine enchanted silver inlay up and down its length. That short sword was shaped like a weight-forward gladius and had a spells placed on it to be nearly invisible and to do the damage of a great-sword. Each gem had a different spell cast upon it to hide the wearer, keep the wearer from growing weary, minimize the need for food or water, elude those pursuing and speed healing. They were exercises in the mastery of my craft. They were too powerful to let loose among an unwitting and unknowing populace. To those that could sense magic they whispered with power. I set them aside in an armored glass display case for others to wonder at.
Before long I felt the urge to scry once again. I cast myself up without a destination or a goal. I opened my focus once, twice, thrice. I found the slow stately dance of the planets in their orbits. Gravity ruled the great distances between the stars. The movements of the planets and stars was stately, incredibly powerful and relentless. I sought deep between the stars and, further away, sensed the whirling dance of stellar clusters. Ruling it all was the tremendous dance of the slowly spinning galactic disk. Beyond that lay the minuets and gavottes of the galactic clusters heading across the void on their unguessable paths. At the center of our galaxy lay a great spinning black hole with enormous jets of plasma blasting out of each pole, a dynamo of energy that would never falter until the end of time. I beheld a source of power that none but the great author had contemplated before me. The most subtle of gestures when backed by this monster could destroy stars. I felt humbled and afraid that my scope had grown past my ability to feather its effects.
I remembered him saying that Pluto would surprise me. I created a viewpoint at the orbit of Uranus closest to Pluto, then sent out a ‘slap and tickle’. The entire planet eruped with a great screeching and baying like a clubbed bloodhound and lit out for the Hyades cluster at a significant multiple of the speed of light. It had been put into place to protect our system from raiders. When I goosed it from an unexpected direction it took off like a frightened bird for those in authority. I was above its pay grade. I felt someone laughing like hell in the back of my mind. “You’re welcome.”
From there I played about in the Kuiper belt, gathering rocks, fusing rocks, busting rocks. As a show-stopper I cleared near earth orbit of all man’s and nature’s detrius. I left it all at L4, the leading libration point where gravity gets Alzheimer’s.
I thought about creating a lunar colony and making open gates to it, but the governments were bound to screw it up, and badly. I forbore that experiment for a time when I was really bored and could afford the attention to play nurse-maid.
I recalled that I promised to attempt to ‘grok’ the sun. I hibernated for a couple of months, reading what I could on stellar structure then scryed into the structure of our closest star. I did it slowly, in steps. I experimented with new viewpoints in meditation. I saw things that I could not otherwise conceive of. The concentrated flows of energy did things to reality that were quite difficult to accept, much less to explain. I know that I witnessed things finish before they started. I witnessed reality split in two, executing both forwards and backwards at the same time. I had no idea how it happened and it scared the hell out of me.
I observed until I discovered an initiating mechanism. However, I had no idea what drove it. I had one hell of an ‘instant rezoning’ trigger but I was afraid to use it unless the local results proved to be much worse than the need for its use. That was one nasty motherfucker.
I’d finished with my forensic studies for the nonce. I was pretty shell-shocked. I headed for town and looked up my old biker bar. I needed some understanding friends. The guys were in full party mode. I bought a few rounds for the house and settled into some hard-core drinking. Somebody eventually asked what I did for a living. I told them I was a blacksmith and a magician. They thought that I meant ‘stage’ magician. I think that they got the right idea when I drunkenly balanced eight spinning silver dollars on top of each other then moved the stack around. I collapsed the stack between my palms then threw my hands open. A cloud of a thousand silver dimes hovered over the bar. I gently let them fall. The guys picked them up. One said, “Silver?”
I said, “Yep. Silver agrees with magic. People? Don’t fuck with people. They scream and die once the spells end. I don’t like killing any more.” I passed out at the table.
I woke up with an honor guard and a full tank. I pissed my life away. After I came out of the john one of the guys asked me, “Wizard dude, are you for fucking real?”
I replied, “I’m as real as the sky, the seas and the land. Yeppers, I’m the real thing.”
He shuddered. “Crap. I was afraid of that. He looked me in the eyes. “Dude, do you do favors? Like, ‘I owe you my life’ kind of favors?”
I looked at him curiously. “I do favors and I don’t call in markers. If a need is there I do my best. I’m not a hard-ass. I’m a medic.”
He slumped. “Oh, thank God. Man, we’ve got a real bad situation and we need help. As far as we know, this is what’s goin’ down...” Their landlord was using an old dump and car graveyard as a trailer park. The pollution was crippling the kids. One of the mom’s tried to play lone ranger and got stomped. I got mad. I go pissed. I called for my armor. I called for my sickle. I stood there like a third-grader’s idea of the angel of destruction, but I was real, man. Real. “Take me to the woman. Then take me to the children. Send others to find and hold your landlord. Fuck the police. Snatch the bastard. I’ll make it right.”
Motorcycles screamed out of that lot like disreputable angels of retribution. I hopped on a bike and was taken to a local hospital. The woman I saw was in terrible shape. She had a missing eye, her spine was broken just below the heart and her knees were shattered. “Get a nurse, about her size. Vamanos.”
A totally bewildered nurse was rushed into the room. I pointed at a chair. “Sit there, sister. We need you as an organic model.” I forced a synergy between them. Then the healing began. Ten hours later a woman and her clone lay sleeping. They were both disgustingly healthy. “Take me to the kids. Now.”
I hit the hospital wards. I pumped enough healing and sunshine into that place to make the U.N. sing Kum-Ba-Ya. Bone breaks, burns, cancer, renal failure, diabetes, heart problems, AIDS, tumors, you name it, I gave it marching papers. Finally I was ready to deliver some retribution.
Ol’ Ken wasn’t feeling too well. Both his legs were broken and he was missing most of his front teeth from arguing with the troops. I didn’t feel like fucking around with him. I grasped him in a hand-at-a-distance and flung him into orbit. He’d come down eventually. Or not. I visited the property they’d been living on. I shook my head. Carcinogens were everywhere and clean water was a myth. I sat down in the middle of the mess and began the cleaning process. I exchanged the six mile by six mile property with hot but clean rock from twelve miles deep in the earth. It took eighteen hours to finish. By that time I was pooped. I rolled over and fell asleep. The stone around me deformed to cradle my body as I slept. When I awoke the stars were shining overhead. I rose, felt for the direction of my home and simply ‘became there’. I cast a spell to identify places similar to what I had cleaned. I linked a great subduction zone to each one found so that it would be pulled deep into the Earth for regeneration. I then formed an agent to seek out places with dangerously contaminated water and drive it deep into the mantle where the heat and pressure would neutralize its poisons.
I fell asleep once more. My actions had taken quite a bit of energy.
When I woke up I lay there in bed looking at the ceiling. I calmly said out loud “I’ve got to stop getting pissed off. That’s when I do the big things. I can’t watch out for the innocent bystandards, and collateral damage is something that I’m not willing to accept.”
I retreated from interacting with people. I bought my groceries and had my propane tanks filled. I studied and wrote in my journals. I examined the little things and the big things.
I went back to studying the Sun. It had rhythms, tempos, vibrations, cycles and idiosyncracies. I wondered if the damned thing was alive. By comparison the internal structures and behavior of the Earth were simple. Jupiter, now there was an interesting planet. It was a gaseous laboratory on a planetary scale. The only thing that you couldn’t do was perform an experiment in isolation.
I needed money each year for property tax and income tax, as well as food, fuel and raw metal. I scryed for silver and gold, then went out to dig it up. Whatever coinage that was under water I called to the surface, then from a rented boat I scooped it up with a net, just like catching smelt. I travelled thruought the Great Lakes, keeping near the shoreline. I called the coins to me rather than going to them. I was quite successful. Previously I had no idea of the magnitude of coins lost beneath the waters. I dug two sub-basements beneath my home, deep within the cliffs. I had difficulty in trading such mixed goods. I found a numismatic trading house in Milwaukee that was willing to take on the job in small lots. ( I considered a small lot fifty pounds of mixed coinage at a time.) Much of the treasure was in silver coin minted before World War One. Occasionally something dating from the Revolutionary War or the French and Indian War came up, typically French, English or Spanish silver and gold. It was never in ‘mint’ condition, though a very few were close.
With my knowledge of metallurgy combined with what magical skills I possessed I wondered how successful I would be if I attempted to forge coins, as in forgery--minting my own. I bought a top-quality ten troy ounce Kruggerand then sifted through my collection of various ‘fishing expeditions’. I found enough gold coin that was so used and obscured that it would never get me much more than the value of the raw gold. I pitched in a few American pennies for the copper, then felt my way through the process of duplicating the Kruggerand. Some of the gold was so debased that I had to add a few more coins’ worth to get an honest ten troy ounces of gold stock. Then I ‘grew’ the coin. I was quite happy with the result. I shrugged my shoulders and pulled all the gold I had accumulated. I spent a few weeks going through twelve more pounds of gold and a handful of pennies making ten ounce Kruggerands. All that work netted me twenty big, fat gold coins, together worth over a half million dollars U.S. on the open market.
I looked at all that miscellaneous silver coinage. Most of it was so disreputable that it wasn’t even funny. I got an idea and smiled. I could pick up a “very fine” Morgan silver dollar, a “very fine” seated liberty silver dollar, and a “very fine” Spanish 8 reales coin. I expected to spend about three hundred and fifty to twenty-two hundred dollars on each one. Then I’d use them as models to pump out a few thousand of each type.
After picking out an assortment of good looking silver coins I took them to my trading house, where I inquired into purchasing the three high-quality silver coins. I had no problem in purchasing what I wanted.
Once back home I carefully examined the 8 reales coin with all my skills and abilities. Silver has an affinity for magic unlike any other metal. I held a double-handful of worn silver coins in my hands and ‘remembered’ the 8 reales coin. Within a minute or so I held a coin and a handful of silver alloy pebbles. I spent a few days making each type of coin. I soon became bored with the task. I had a small chest filled with each type of silver coin, which I considered sufficient. I had put quite a hole in my raw stock. I found a reasonably good silver dime and the best quality silver quarter that I could find in my stock and filled a chest with each of them as well.
I bought a plain, high-quality platinum ring. This I used to key off of while scrying of the Great Lakes once again. I was surprised to find bars of the metal in two spots. Presumably ships had gone down in those places with jewelry making supplies. I searched for rubies, emeralds and diamonds in the same fashion. I had not thought to draw jewelry lost in the lakes to me, just coins. That had been a mistake that I planned to rectify. I rented a fishing trawler out of Green Bay. I paid the captain and mate to keep their lips shut and ignore what I was doing. I had them slowly troll just offshore up and down the bay, then cover the Lake Michigan shoreline. If it had platinum in its construction I called it to me. If it had one or more diamonds in it, I called it. The same for rubies and emeralds. Off the coast of Chicago a steamer had gone down with nearly two hundred pounds of platinum bar on board. The jewelry mostly came from sites where a ferry or a tour boat went down. I had a pair of very heavy reinforced crates shipped from Chicago to my home. I took the jewelry back with me. I wanted to buy a sonic cleaner and give them the treatment, then take a good look at what I’d harvested. It was enough to fill two large suitcases.
I spent the winter examining all that jewelry. I used an eyepiece to examine the cloisonne and inlay work. I wondered if I could do that sort of thing. I sat in my comfortable chair by the fire, looking at my broad-axe and shield. They would be wonderful subjects for engraving, with the broad expanses of smooth metal to work with. First I sat down with the shield before me and designed on paper spells of concealment, blur, strength, unyielding immobility, lightness and endurance. I took great care to weave the spells into one structure. As I took up that shield I felt for the spells already cast upon it and considered how the new ensorcelements would interact with them. I decided to try it.
I designed and forged my own graving tools. They were bespelled to cut steel in a controlled fashion. I had to use a specially refractory face block that I created to finish them as they had a tendency to deform my anvil face. Then I sat down under a bright light and carved the design into the shield, taking care to keep the strokes all the same depth and to preserve the proportions of the diagram that I’d designed. Then I fused a crucible of mixed silver and platinum, hoping to encourage the silver’s affinity for spell work combined with the toughness of the platinum. I ‘smeared’ the metal alloy into the engraving with my thumb, then polished off the excess. It looked marvellous and seemed to work quite well. I realized after the fact that I should have put the offensive spells on the OUTSIDE of the shield and the defensive ones on the INSIDE, dammit!
Then I worked on the great axe. I performed the same process, with spells of sharpness, toughness, dexterity, unstoppable power and inducing fear. When I finished with it and gave it a test swing it sizzled through the air. A close examination of the edge showed tiny wavering flames up and down both blades. I buried it in a tree vertically and had a hell of a time getting it out. I had to cut the tree down. After that I wrote another spell into the spine of the blade for ease of release. That did the trick.
I continued making camp gear for the Elves. Now I engraved my work with near-invisible decorations with spells woven into them. It became a challenge to see what I could add and see if they would notice it. I added a never-be-poisoned to my pots, cups and table wear. I added always-find-me, always-be-sharp and never-be-damanged to the hunting arrow heads and the atl-atl heads. The boar spears received a kill-with-mercy spell. I learned to make camp lights out of quartz crystals, about three-quarters of an inch across and three inches long. They would glow for generations. You had to put a bag over them for darkness, though. I actually grew them in pans of white sand in my basement.
I didn’t have anything better to do so I went prospecting again. I rented a powerful thirty foot boat with a swiming platform. I most definitely didn’t use my real name! I went out with a pilot, a lot of very heavy coolers and a heavy dip net. We headed for Key West. I called for gold.
I got Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch, French and German gold. It came in coins, bars and jewelry. The captain became alarmed when the boat began to wallow in the waves. I’d harvested about two tons by that point. I hired a truck to get all of it back to Wisconsin. I stopped on the way at a bank. I needed a couple big bags of pennies.
I made a box. The master coin went into one side. The box had no bottom and was placed over the raw material. Every twenty minutes or so a bell sounded. I opened the lid and took out the duplicate coin. Sigh. How boring. All that bar gold had to be reprocessed as it could either be traced or claimed by various governments. Kruggerands couldn’t. The next time I’d go for diamonds. I wondered how many uncut diamonds lay at the bottom of the sea? The volume of lost, cut gemstones from events such as the wreck of the Titanic should be formidable! And the silver? Good God, the silver! I wondered at the effects I might observe within a silver-lined work room.
I recalled the last of The Author’s commands to me. He told me to do my best to understand the Earth’s biome. I understood that this was something between a project and a test. The delicacy required and the level of complexity involved had me doubting my chances from the beginning. No matter my apprehension. I was commanded to attempt it, so I did.
I started with a limited experiment and went on from there. I found a tree that had fallen and was covered in moss. I brought it home and put it in a new cave on a bed of mulched leaves and good black soil some two feet thick. I had lamps placed above it that mimicked the light of the sun. The air within the room was kept moist and fresh, as if it were close upon a waterfall. It died.
I learned the hard way that one cannot separate the things that make up an ecology. They are inter-dependent and wildly differing, yet unmistakably support each other.
I learned to observe all over again. My experiment in becoming a cedar tree had but touched on the depths and flavors that were Gaea’s signature. I became deeper than trees, wider than storms. I learned why there was such a thing as a mosquito. Because nothing said it couldn’t be!
I learned to make plants and trees grow at will, yet I had to take care not to make them grow out of their seasons or to exceed certain limits or their lifespans would be greatly limited, the wood of a tree would be greatly weakened or the soil supporting the growth would be horribly depleted. I learned how to integrate my living space with growing things and natural forms. I didn’t have a bath tub, I had a rock pool with a small waterfall. Quartz outcrops brought the sunlight inside to feed beds of moss and wall-coverings of ivy. The mist from the waterfall kept everything watered.
I changed my work philosophy. I sought out harmony in whatever I did. If I felt a dis-harmony then I would stop what I was doing until I could determine a way to continue without that clash. It was like having perfect pitch.
I carefully examined some of my earlier work, such as the suit of armor that would extend the wearer’s constitution and winced in pain. It was a balanced work in that the later cost would offset the immediate benefit, but there was nothing to warn the wearer that they were about to incur a fatal debt. I corrected the works I had in stock and sent out messages promising free corrective work on my older creations. I had several responses proclaiming that I’d sold them exactly what they desired. In the long, still hours of the night I worried about those.
I learned to modify my wards, incorporating the bone-sapping cold of an arctic night. My elf-goods gained a quiet understanding of all of nature about the wielder. It was easy to do with the woven goods, such as the cloaks. The wards worked into the metal goods proved much more a challenge. Pottery never seemed to have the stability needed to support such a working. At least, none lasted through three invocations.
I designed an ‘in extremis’ form of protection. I found that it took the form of a belt. When girdled with it, none could exhaust my strength as a cluster of stars fed its intent. None could affect or exhaust its wearer, either magically or physically. I built in a final strike which nothing close could live through. It took the form of a slim belt of rubies with a highly figured plaque in place of the clasp.
Long ago there were magical schools and guilds. They existed not so much to educate those with power as to protect the normal folk.
Next, great halls were built and copies of many elder libraries were provided. Some older, skilled folk were recruited to teach and to restrict access to the more esoteric and dangerous works before their students discovered how to create true hellfires. Very few were allowed to practice weather magic or ecological reconstruction. Comprehending the successive generations of reprocussions outstripped the abilities of most aspirants. Less than one in a million learned of the energies one could tap that engine which drove the galaxies and their black holes.
It seemed cruel, but a graduated level of skills was implemented to keep various spell-workers operating within their comprehension levels. However, when war was declared all hell broke loose. The wizards that did their best to heal the lands after the wars broke out, either because the parties had died horrible bespelled deaths or the lands themselves stopped supporting people, were written of in song and legend. They were the great ones. They used skill and intuition to knit together the various screaming shards of what remained after a catastrophic magical battle spanning the lines of reality into structures that would succor and support life once again. They were the real heroes. The need for their existences was a tragedy. By any independent evaluation they were insane.
White Caroline hated her sister, Red Jennifer. They knew at a deep level that they balanced each other but the necessity for the other’s existence galled both of them. They met each morning in a green garden that they both agreed to tend. At times the sprouts would grow in regimented order, and at other times the plants would twine about the ankle of any trespasser who would never be heard from again, despite their piteous calls for help. They maintained a limestone walkway and a pristine limestone bench for postulants to bring them problems. They occasionally used their skills and touched a human, giving them properties and extended lives in order to either act as their hammers or direct others in directions that the gods required. Even the gods were commanded to do certain things.
Caroline and Jennifer didn’t know it, but they were so finely balanced that several times a year they would sleep-walk and assume the other’s role. They both had skill, empathy and power yet they also had an overwhelming drive to succeed. It was their individual doubts that blinded them to the concept that they had already succeeded. Their bitter contest was the stuff of legends, for legends are all we have left of that desperate combat. They continued to strive, learning and practicing more and even more powerful enchantments until their horizon began to close in upon them. None could reach them anymore but being on the inside, the effect was undetectable. One day they cast one final enchantment at each other which caused their reality to break away from our universe, much as a fresh fruit once plucked is a life unto its own.
It was in this fashion that magic left the lands of man.
It had been many ages since the time of the red and white. The age of steel and black was coming to a close and a new age was upon us, that of brown and gold.
The child asked, ‘where is the light?’
The bitter priest replied, “Only from within yourself. The other sources are gone.”
The child dreamed over her instruction. Soon a light formed between her hands.
They started learning the old spells once again.
They practiced the thunderbolt during the sky displays, during celebrations. The lightning bolt was harder to hide. After its triggering a prince of the lord came to see what violent force caused this and if it could be mastered in the name of his lord. He didn’t return and the school moved.
Down through the centuries the hidden school recruited from a select few each generation. Sometimes decades went by before a new student was chosen. Never before had a student found them. That is, before I stuck my nose where it didn’t belong.
I was scrying the old forgotten monasteries and temples north of India, deep in the mountains. I did some every day to keep from burning out--museum fatigue, you know. I figured that it would be all too easy to become bored and distracted enough to skip right over what I was looking for.
I was gently led away from an area and had no idea what did it or how. I sat there in my library, wondering how to proceed. I decided to quantify the problem. I started with a satellite map of the area, of the highest resolution that I could procure. I covered the map with a piece of solid clear plastic and used a marker to show where I’d last scried, comparing the features on the map to the features I’d scried. After coming on the place from several different directions I got a feeling for its size. Something that large could easily have held a respectably sized town. Also, smack in the middle of it was a deep green valley that could have easily grown the crops to support said respectably sized town. It was an interesting puzzle--one that I wasn’t sure that I should investigate. I didn’t want to run into anyone more powerful than myself with a judgemental attitude.
I realized that if I could find them, then they could find me. Such a vulnerabililty did not sit well. The Author said that I had backed my way into a time distortion with my sword staff spell. I had gone quite a bit further than that in my studies as I probed the mechanisms active within our star.
Rather than attempt to move forward or back in time I wanted a shield that would shift me slightly to one side in time so that I could return to my normal progression of time and entropy. I decided that this was a place for wisdom, and cast the first attempt on a small rock. It turned invisible, just as I’d planned. However, on retrieving it the rock had nearly evaporated with the unmoderated rate of time’s passage in the place that had held it. This would not do at all!
I left that project alone to stew for a while. It was a tougher bit of gristle than most.
I attempted the spell from a different direction. This time I recovered the rock undamaged. Nice. Next I tried it on a chicken. The chicken came back alive, but insane. It just sat and stared. It didn’t eat, drink or sleep. The only sign of life it exhibited was breathing, which ended afer about a week. Not nice!
I carefully followed the fingerprint of the spell as I cast it once again on a rock. No time passed. Duration did not occur. It would be a marvelllous tool for a corpsman retrieving injured people but only if they were unconcious. The mind continued despite the limit on duration.
This time I studied the effects deep within the sun, cataloging all the things that happened at once. I saw my problem and laughed. I’d missed half the spell. I tried the third variant against another chicken It came back unharmed but slightly flustered. I figured that the stupid bird was confounded by its frission with its environment. It was time to try it on myself.
I played with the spell until it would automatically drop out after a minute. I couldn’t suffocate in a minute. I cast the thing and found myself in utter silence. I could breathe and see, but there was nothing TO see. Walking around was like being on a treadmill in a blacked-out room. This needed some work.
I had two avenues to approach the problem with. One, a device or spell to bridge vision, or some way to give me a percentage of shielding rather than the whole thing. That would allow me to affect my environment while shielded as well as see, but it might open my defenses. Another thought came up--what if the thing inadvertently took me plane walking? I’d been warned by the best of the best not to try it so I wasn’t going to try anything that might accidentally send me off into that good night. A percentage solution won. I’d aim for eighty percent to start with.
The best defense was to not even be around to draw an attack, but other than that I decided on a layered defense. I made a silver bracer that had four concentric shields built into it. If twenty percent was allowed through each layer and one layer was my standard threat level, triggering the shield to four layers would only let between one and two one hundredths of an attack through. I’d have to see if I could ‘work’ through the fields. Summoning a banger or tossing someone into orbit while remaining shielded would be optimal.
I sat in my chair, playing with effects like a sheet that would move or descend, an invisible arrow, or a strong sphere in which I could capture someone--and give them a squeeze. I had to be able to talk with people through the thing, too. I suppose that if I could capture air then I could make it vibrate. The reverse should be possible too. It took a while to implement.
When I got it running I grinned. I had an invisible, unstoppable eaves-dropping bug.
I also worked on a ‘bug out’ spell that would take me somewhere both known and secure in a fraction of a second, like a turtle pulling its head into its shell and then pulling its shell in afterwards. I turned that one into a necklace with a trigger. It would activate if I panicked--if my heartbeat went very high or if it stopped. For a stronghold I picked the deepest sub-basement of my home and put a 95% time shield on it. If somebody killed me and the bug-out activated fast enough they’d be in deep shit. If I had a brain left I’d be left hanging there in an unpenetrable chamber that I could work through, and I’d already tested that I could cast nasty things through that shield. Oh, no doubt someone like The Author could wrap me and my place in another field and drop me “somewhere else” with no way back, but for anything local and objectionable I’d have a perfectly good fly swatter available. That rising or falling plane I’d played with could be moved very fast. It had a pretty good kick, too. I had no doubt that I could pancake a combat tank--and maybe an aircraft carrier. For flying things, though, two planes moving towards each other at high speed ... Hmm. Have to practice that...
I had plenty of magically enhanced primitive weapons. I decided to create something a bit higher tech. I found a short club made out of blackthorn wood, about three inches in diameter. It wasn’t as elegant as a ‘magic wand’. But then I wasn’t an elegant sort of guy. I enhanced its toughness by quite a bit by radially compressing it until there wasn’t a lot of air or water space left in its cells, then got out my steel gravers. I put most of my defensive spells on it along with a magical ‘reflector’ that would give anyone trying to destroy it a really bad day. Then I worked the core of that thing to create a laser. From what I’d learned by observing galactic black holes making it powerful wasn’t an issue. Making it controllable and safe, now that was a whole ‘nuther ballgame. I had a lot of fun getting the control down fine enough to write on a piece of paper with scorch marks. It had a pretty broad frequency range. The thing was only fourteen inches long so even with a folded beam path I couldn’t go too far into the radio spectrum. The other way though? I got the thing to emit gamma rays before I realized how stupid I was and put a cap on it. I could see trying to convince a primitive that I had bad Juju--”Beware, man, lest I wave my blasting rod at you. Your hair will fall out, your skin will blacken, your teeth will fall out, you will cough blood, you will shit out your very guts and you will go blind.” Radiation poisoning. Brrrr.
I was prepared to defend, to attack and to bargain. In order to appear innocuous I dressed in sturdy hiking clothing and wore a well-stocked backpack. I carried a pot, kettle, cup, blanket and cutlery the likes of which I traded with the elven folk. Alone they made me pretty hard to poison or kill. I’m afraid that I broke a multiplicity of international laws by falsifying a passport with more damned visa stamps than you could shake a stick at. I walked in from the east, from the debated lands, through Myranmar and Bhutan into Khatmandu where the mountains rise to greet the dawn half a day before the rest of the earth. I carried a simple ash staff to aid in pacing myself. I used the Sherpa step; foot ahead, breathe foot ahead, breathe foot ahead. I had hired a wiry little man to guide me as we made our way past the foothills of the great Everest chain and west in Nepal. When I recognized the land I gave my bearer most of my stored food and the gold that I had promised. He salaamed, bid me a long life and turned his path to return to the lowlands where the travelling was easier.
I felt for and found their shield. Whoever had implemented it had cunningly used a cave mouth as an entrance to their mountain village below. I acted as if I were ignorant, sleeping in the cave mouth and drinking my buttered tea day after day. I read to confuse my watchers and smiled to myself. The best of traps do not appear to be traps.
One morning I woke to find four men pointing spears at me--in my own camp! How rude! I expressed my displeasure and lasered their spear shafts off just forward of their hands. I then turned to start the fire and prepare tea. “Would you break fast with me?”
The sudden violence of my actions and peaceful words threw them into disarray. They said nothing and retreated up the cave. I shook my head again. “Rude children. Their trainer should be sanctioned.” I drank tea, made a bit of dried meat and vegetable stew with barley and relaxed, waiting for their next move.
A warrior in plate armor came to fight me without offering reason or explanation. This was past rude. I used a force plane to drop him off the side of the cliff. Hopefully he came to regret his actions before he hit the rocks, some mile and a half below. Enough was enough. I repacked my camp and marched deeper into the cave. When I came to the false rock face I reached out to feel for a massive block of stone some thirty meters on a side. I gently placed it over the body of the knight. Within was a network of halls and ramps, all empty of folk. All dark. A wild wind blew down the ramps from above. It all felt quite old and deserted but I knew it to be a sham, else I would have been ignored. They made enemies of themselves by taking the bait and attacking me.
I presumed that any holdouts would have been dug low, deep in the mountains so that escape routes could be established running through the spine of the mountain range or even across the ranges once enough depth was achieved. They were long gone.
They had planned long and well to escape invaders.
I realized that I couldn’t force their cooperation. From the size and intricacy of the cave workings it appeared that they’d been there for centuries. They’d just proven that they were insular so they were no doubt pretty hide-bound, set in their ways. I gave it up as a bad job.
I returned to my home. I sat on my bench in front of the cabin for, oh, several days. I thought about my skills, my place in things and where I saw my path going. Why did I want to meet with those at the school? Was it a blind cry for approval? That was irrational. Didn’t I have the approbation of The Author? I came to the conclusion that I was after other viewpoints. I was but one working alone. I had no peers with which to form a dialog. I decided rather to take advantage of my access to the elder Elven scroll library. They certainly had developed a different set of viewpoints compared to mine.
Boy, talk about conservative. However, I did determine how they tied themselves to the biosphere, grounding themselves and giving them more power than their bodies alone could offer. It made them nearly invisible in the woods yet consequently left them vulnerable to large scale ecological issues. If a rogue asteroid whacked the planet to the degree that the planet was sterilized they would die, root, leaf and branch. I, on the other hand, was tied to the system as a whole. If I had the time to scarf off a living section of the planet’s crust I could boot-strap Gaea on Mars. There was a lot of water tied up in the Jovian and Saturnian moons. With a delicate touch and the power of the galactic black hole I could re-melt the Martian planetary core to generate a magnetic field.
I was quite worried. The old saw, “Nature abhors a vacuum” should have been re-written as “Nature hates an imbalance”. What in the world necessitated my coming into all this power? Sooner or later I’d have to pay the piper. My imagination was kept busy toting up the bill.