LOST COLONY CH. 04-4

“This is your first pilgrimage?” Sparr hadn’t noticed an emblem on Toph’s careful attire.

“It is,” he admitted. “I mean, it’s my first time here with the temple. I’ve led caravans through this stretch many times though.”

“I’m just curious what to expect,” Sparr said, before realizing he might be revealing too much. “I mean, I wasn’t raised in the faith.”

Toph just laughed. “You were at the Departure. The Animal, right?”

Sparr cursed inwardly, but tried to maintain his composure. “Yes,” he said.

“Those of us joining the pilgrimage aren’t invited,” Toph said. “But I heard the stories. Bravo, by the way.”

“I was drugged,” muttered Sparr.

“Oh, I’m sure you were. Anyway,” Toph resumed, “if you’ve seen the Departure you’ve seen the pilgrimage.”

“I heard something about ‘wonders’.”

Toph snorted, then, with a sudden, dramatic flourish of his hands, spun to face Sparr. “All of the faithful, gather!” he said, affecting a showman’s voice. “Gladden your heart and fill your soul. Walk the same path as Omm himself!” The merchant raised his hands as if exhorting an invisible crowd. “See the wonders, learn of the trials, and join in the ritual cursing of the machines. And of course, buy lots of souvenirs.”

It was Sparr’s turn to laugh, the first time he could remember doing so in several days. “Do you get a commission?”

“A token for every genuine, fake replica wheel,” Toph joked. “You’re alright, Animal.”

The two walked for a time in silence. Dust kicked up by the wagons clouded the morning air, before settling onto stubby undergrowth. Around them the hills came alive. Grape pickers carried empty baskets toward the hills, returning with bundles of red, white, and even yellow fruit. In the fields, draybeasts similar to those that pulled the caravan dragged carts and plows. Seven hundred years ago on Earth the scene would have felt pastoral. Now it only served to remind Sparr what had been so quickly forgotten on Kaybe. On the other hand, the occupants of the planet had with equal speed found ways to plant, harvest, trade, ferment, build, and weave.

Sparr was about to ask Toph about silkworms when he stopped cold. Not one hundred meters from the side of the road, in the middle of a field, lay a massive, hollow cylinder. Roughly four meters across, it must once have been at least twenty in length before breaking into two pieces. Leaving a confused lord Toph behind, Sparr sprinted toward it.

It was the remains of an airship. Entering through the gap between the two halves, Sparr could see that after it fell from the sky, it had been stripped. The large plates that made up the outer hull were intact, but where once there would have been interior bulkheads, seats, machinery, and conduits for wiring, there were only holes where the bolts and fasteners had been.

“What are you doing?” Toph had caught up with Sparr, and with some difficulty, hauled himself inside.

“I was curious.” Sparr ran his eyes over the interior of the craft, trying to guess its fate.

“There’s another one later,” Toph said. He appeared perplexed by Sparr’s interest in the fallen airship. “I think the pilgrimage stops at that one.”

“There are others like this?”

“Well, yes.” Toph looked anxiously back toward the caravan. “At least one other round one like this. A few square ones.” He hesitated. “We should catch up with the others.”

The man was right. Sparr doubted Liette or the guards would appreciate him wandering too far from the rest of the caravan. He hopped out, and with a longing look back at the hulk, returned to the road.

***

Much like the mornings, evenings with the caravan had a predictable, if rowdier, routine. Upon stopping for the evening, Sparr took Drian and Tuck a short distance from the camp to drill. The youths gradually came to accept Sparr as a mentor. Each was eager to become a better fighter than his friend, and more than happy to be spared the mundane work of setting up camp. Plus, Sparr was sure that by now word of his exploits in the arena and at the Departure had reached the two. No doubt his reputation intrigued the pair. Equally important, the daily workouts helped keep Sparr in shape, and his reflexes sharp.

Evenings in the camp were magical. With Cheddar perched just above the horizon, the group would form a circle around a central fire. Silla and Grom would rush about with food, often easily preserved dishes such as root vegetables or the delicate salted fish, but just as often freshly caught game or fowl that had been purchased from roadside vendors. As she had at the temple, Silla proved masterful. Long before the dishes were brought forth, the pilgrims were driven to a nearly frantic hunger by the intense and exotic scents wafting from the cook fire. Under Liette’s watchful eye, one maiden and one prince poured wine.

“Perfectly aged!” lord Varn exclaimed. “In a Varn amphora, of course.” By now most in their company had learned to tune him out.

Some nights there was a show, some nights a lesson in the faith. This particular evening the lord and lady Gast were earnestly questioning Liette about the interpretation of the maker machines in Origin lore.

“Do you believe,” the lady Gast asked, “that the machines are literal constructs, or metaphorical?”

If the pretentious question troubled Liette, she gave no indication. “Tomorrow,” she began, “we will stop at the first of the pilgrimage sites. “You will see that the machines are very real. However, that does not exclude them from consideration as metaphorical, or even allegorical objects.”

Sparr rolled his eyes. It was exactly this sort of pointless conversation that had made grad school parties unbearable. Liette noticed his discomfort.

“So, Animal,” she said, drawing out and exaggerating his nickname, “I understand you showed an interest in the machine we passed earlier. What do you think?”

It was a potentially fraught moment. Sparr’s reluctantly-adopted persona of the brute didn’t fit with nuanced ideological conjecture. Still, he had little interest in playing dumb. “That one was certainly real enough,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to have been aboard when it fell from the sky.”

Liette gave him a puzzled look, as several others in the group turned their attention to him. The lady Affan even briefly tore herself from the prince at her side.

“Fell from the sky?” Liette asked.

Sparr was stunned. It occurred to him, too late, that no one in the company understood that the wreckage they had passed earlier once had been an airship. “Yes, metaphorically,” he said quickly. “When Omm cursed the machines they all fell from prominence.”

Lady Affan saved him from further scrutiny. “Yes, yes exactly,” she said. “The maker machines can be said to have been brought low.” Her eyes swept over Sparr.

Wishing to avoid further gaffes, Sparr excused himself. He grabbed a plate from Grom, and stalked off to be alone. Beyond the pool of light thrown by the camp, Sparr faced the wild edge of the inhospitable planet. Unfamiliar stars spread out overhead, brighter than Cheddar’s pale crescent. He could just make out the edge of the wood, and the soft shape of the hills beyond. The wind teased his hair.

On balance, Sparr decided, his journey was going well. As much as he had come to dislike the Origin, the caravan was proving ideal. He had companionship, was well fed, and traveled in relative safety. In little more than a week they would reach Shong, where Sparr possibly could contact the Odysseus. If along the way he would be asked to reprise his role as Animal in Liette’s bed, that was a small price to pay.

A dusk hound yelped, and a moment later Sparr spotted two pinpricks of light, the creature’s eyes regarding him from deep in the shadow. The animals that had hunted him his first night on Kaybe feared the fire, and avoided larger parties. He was safe from them.

Impulsively, Sparr flung a bone toward the creature. Shortly, the hound emerged, all but invisible with its grey and black coloring. It sniffed the air, crouched, and picked up the gift. For a moment its eyes met Sparr’s, a fleeting connection between the two. Just as quickly, the creature fled back into the night, back to its world.

Which world was Sparr’s?

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