Castle Roland

The Translator

by David McLeod


Chapter 8

Published: 23 Feb 15

The Translator

by David McLeod

On Sunset Isle

Phillip spat sand from his mouth and rolled onto his side. Sand? Then he sat up. He was on a beach. The sky was so bright it was nearly white. His heart pounded and his chest tightened. Argon! He let out his breath when he saw Argon stirring beside him. Phillip's heartbeat began to slow.

"Argon, are you all right?" Phillip asked.

"I'm fine," Argon replied. "How long have we been here?"

"I just woke up," Phillip said. He helped Argon to his feet. The two boys brushed off the sand that clung to their clothes.

"I'm a little stiff," Phillip continued. "We must have slept for hours. Where do you suppose we are?"

"I hope we're on my world," Argon said. "We'll not know for sure . . . wait! I don't have to wait until tonight to see the stars." He gestured, and then smiled. "Fortiamus! Magic! It's here. I can feel it! I'm home!"

"Oh. That's good," Phillip said. "And you feel the great magic?"

When Argon nodded, Phillip asked, "Uh, what can you do with the great magic?"

Argon blushed, "Nothing, actually. I was only an apprentice."

"Apprentice Builder?" Phillip asked.

"No," Argon responded. "Well, yes, but I meant apprentice sailor. I was learning the Sailors Guild secrets."

"But you said you could use the magic–" Phillip began. "And I thought I understood it, but I guess I don't understand it at all."

"But you must understand magic!" Argon protested. "I saw your Masters–the Shaman and the one in the funny hat–weaving magic. They pulled it to them with their hands and their voices. I could see it in the smoke–"

"You mean when they opened the door? The sipapu? That's how magic works here?" Phillip had perhaps his third epiphany. "You pull magic to you with your hands. But you can't see it, right?"

"They say that some people can see it. I can't, but with smoke, I might. I don't think anyone here thought of that," Argon replied.

"And the chanting?" Phillip prompted.

"Not everyone uses singing," Argon replied. "My mother does when she–"

Argon hiccoughed. Phillip watched the boy fight back tears, remembering that for all his 18 years, Argon was immature in some ways, and that he'd been through a lot.

"The Clerics use chants," Argon said when he'd composed his features. "I think the sound helps them weave magic."

"Do you know where we are–?" Phillip began.

"No, but when I see the stars I will have an idea," Argon replied. "The sun is very high in the sky; we're near the equator, I think."

Argon fished through a pile of driftwood until he found a straight stick about two feet long. Kneeling, he stuck the stick into the sand, eyeing it critically.

"This will tell us," he said. Phillip nodded. The length of the shadow will tell us how close to the equator we are–if Argon knows the season and–what's that word? Inclination? It will be an approximation. . .

While Argon watched the shadow of the stick, and made marks in the sand, Phillip looked around. The beach was wide. The sand on which they stood was white. Farther away from the water, the sand was black. Jungle lay behind the strip of black sand. Vines and something resembling an old Hispanglo man's gray beard festooned trees that Phillip thought were palms. Lower, the floor of the jungle was crowded with fern fronds and more vines. Phillip looked to the left and the right and saw nothing but sea, sand, and jungle.

"I don't see the mountains of your home," Phillip said, remembering Argon's description of the snow-capped mountains above his home.

"No," Argon said. "I thought the magic would take me back to my home, but my home is north of the equator. I have watched the shadow of the stick. I believe that we are south of the equator, but close to it. We're also on a beach that faces the east. We are a long, long way from my home."

"We knew that this might happen," Phillip said. "Even though we may be far from your home, we are probably where we are supposed to be. Remember what the Shaman said about harmony? That is the essence of the Opening Way. We are where we are supposed to be, and as long as we walk in harmony–we will get to your home." At least, I hope so.

During their time in Chaco, Phillip had learned that Argon had been a sailor–Phillip thought cabin boy–on a merchant ship that sailed between Beringia (wherever that was), the Northern Continent (whatever that was), and Eastern Island (which was east of the Northern Continent and north of Beringia–wherever they were). Phillip had sketched a map based on Argon's description, but "I'm not sure that I know any more than I did before we started," he said. Sitting on the black sand of Argon's world, Phillip opened his notebook to the map. "Do you know where we are?"

"No, Phillip," Argon said. "I am sorry. I think we should walk toward the north–"

Whatever reason Argon was about to offer for walking toward the north was lost in Phillip's cry, "Look!" He pointed toward the southwest where a plume of smoke and fire was pushing toward the stratosphere. The boys watched the smoke climb until it reached a level where the wind was blowing toward the west. It was then that the ground began to shake. Some minutes later, the air appeared to shimmer and a sonic blast rattled their ears and the trees.

"Wow!" that was one heck of a volcano," Phillip said. "What's the matter?"

"I know where we are, now," Argon said. "We are on Troll Island. It is a strange place, from which no traveler has ever returned."

"Troll Island? Why is it called that?" Phillip asked.

"Because Trolls live here," Argon shivered. "They're ugly giants that snatch naughty children from their beds, cook them in great pots, and–" The boy paused.

"That's just a story," Argon continued, trying hard to appear grownup. "They don't come near Human towns, but they do attack shepherds and cotters in the mountains. And they are ugly, and big. I guess they're giants."

"What about this island?" Phillip pressed. "What do we have to watch for?"

"The island burns," Argon said. "Just like we saw. I don't know, really. I don't know how much the sailors said was true, and how much was a story." The boy hesitated. "I'm sorry."

Phillip took Argon's hand and squeezed it. "Don't be sorry, Argon. You didn't know this was going to happen. You know, I'll bet the sailors were so afraid that they exaggerated the danger to justify their fear.

"That was just a volcano. I'll bet that explosion was big enough to relieve all the pressure. There won't be another one for a while. See this beach? The black sand is from volcanic rock; the white sand is from the sea. The white sand covers most of the black. It's been here a long, long time. If the volcano were dangerous, the beach wouldn't be so old.

"So, don't be afraid," Phillip continued. "You're afraid. I can tell. Please do not be afraid. My people would not have sent us to this place only to die." At least, I don't think so. I'm not sure the Shaman really knew where we might go, he added to himself. "Come on. You said we should go north. Well, that volcano is southwest of us, so north is a good direction. Let's go."

Phillip took Argon's hand, and urged the smaller boy to begin walking along the harder packed sand, toward the north.

Phillip had packed a dozen matches, each covered with a layer of wax, in a screw-top, steel cylinder with a rubber gasket. They were for emergencies. He'd also packed flint and steel, and some tinder in a zippered plastic bag. At least I thought I'd put it in a bag. I meant to, but must have forgotten, he thought. He gathered the strands and fluff of the tinder from among the clothes in his backpack. That's enough.

Argon watched Phillip strike a few sparks that faded before they reached the tinder. "You're not using magic," he said. "Here, let me."

Phillip looked up from his task. "You said it was harder without boy magic, but I must learn. Can you show me?" He handed the flint and steel to Argon.

"Well, it's like bathing," Argon grinned, thinking of Phillip's frustration when he'd first tried to dry Argon using only boy magic. "You think of the magic pushing the sparks from the flint into the tinder." He struck the flint, and a shower of sparks fell onto the tinder. Before the tinder could begin to smolder, he pressed his finger to the spot. "Now, you try."

Phillip had begun to think of magic as a fluid that ran through his body. Of course, that's how I get boy magic from Argon, he thought. Now, he concentrated on pushing some of that fluid down his arm and through his fingers. He struck the flint, and was rewarded with a shower of sparks. He thought a drop of the fluid onto the tinder, and watched the smolder flare into a tiny flame. Dropping the flint and steel, he carefully fed tiny chips and sticks of wood until the fire was steady.

"That," he said, turning to Argon, "was easy. You are a good teacher." Argon blushed.

"Are these your stars?" Phillip said softly. Argon had walked away from the fire and stood with his back to its light.

"Yes," Argon said, "but something's wrong. I don't know what, but something isn't right."

Phillip took the smaller boy's hand. "Let's sit here and see if you can't find what isn't right."

It was several hours later when Argon spoke. "See? It's the Ship's Wheel," he said. "But it's in the wrong place. I mean, by the sun, we're just south of the equator. The Ship's Wheel should be directly overhead. Instead, it's way far south. And the River, it's too low."

"The River?" Phillip asked. "Oh, yes, the Milky Way. . . the galaxy."

"And, the Sailors' Star," Argon continued. "It's the wrong star! They're going around the wrong star."

"Which one?" Phillip asked.

Argon had pointed out which star he called the Sailors' Star, and the different star that seemed to be the center of rotation. Phillip asked, "Has that one always been the Sailors' Star?"

"Sure," Argon said. "My great-great-grandfather taught me about the stars, and he talked about sailing by the Sailors' Stars when he was a boy."

"What are you making?" Argon asked. Phillip had picked up a chunk of driftwood, and was whittling.

"A top," Phillip replied. "More like a dreidel, actually." The top did resemble the squared-off Jewish toy. "Now I need a flat rock."

Argon was puzzled, but helped Phillip find a relatively flat slab of rock. When they'd brushed the sand off, Phillip spun the top. "See how it wobbles?" he asked.

"Well, yeah," Argon said. "Any top will do that. They spin in one circle and wobble in another."

"Come sit by me," Phillip invited. When Argon obeyed, Phillip put his arm around the smaller boy. "Every top wobbles. The wobble is called nutation. And if you wanted to, you could figure out how long it took for any top to go around in that circle.

"The world is like a top. It spins. Which is why we have night and day and why the stars go around and around the poles. It also wobbles. The spin takes one day and one night. The nutation–the wobble–takes probably tens of thousands of years."

Phillip paused. "I'm sorry, Argon. But unless the laws of physics are a lot different here than on my world, we may be more than miles away from your home. We may be years away."

Argon cried himself to sleep. Phillip held him tightly, stroking his hair and his back while the boy sobbed. Damn, Phillip thought. Of all the things we studied in general science, why was that the one I remembered? Finally, Argon's sobbing ceased, and his breathing slowed. Phillip fell asleep with the boy cradled in his arms.

"You must think me a child," Argon said when they woke.

"No, Argon," Phillip said. "It's my fault. I shouldn't have blurted it out. I should have thought of your feelings, and been more gentle when I told you–"

"No," Argon said. "You are gentle, but you are also strong. You are not afraid to say what must be said. Thank you, Phillip. Thank you for being strong."

They bathed in the ocean. Argon seemed to forget how far away was his home, and frolicked in the waves, dancing and jumping in a game of his own imagination. Phillip danced and jumped with him, happy to see the boy smiling again. After, they wiped the water and salt and sand from their bodies and then lay in the sun, cuddled and kissed, and shared their magic.

After breakfast, Phillip made some changes to their clothing. "It's a breechclout," Phillip said. "It's part of our traditional clothing–from before the Hispanglos sold us blue jeans. It's hot enough . . . this will be all we need to wear." He had already carefully folded and packed away, the beaded vests. Now, the blue jeans joined them. Phillip tied the knee-length boots to the top of his pack. Moccasins that had been in the packs replaced the boots. The boys began walking northward along the beach.

They paused for lunch when Argon estimated that the sun had crossed the zenith. "I figure I can walk about 2–3 miles an hour in the desert and this beach is about the same–sometimes hard sand, sometimes soft. So about 12 miles," Phillip replied. "Do you know what a mile is? An hour?" The words did not translate. Phillip and Argon were both frustrated.

Phillip's Journal

I have some inkling of how Argon must have felt in my world. I am overwhelmed by sensations and experiences. This journal may help me sort them out and make some sense of them.

After describing their arrival, and the discovery that they were in the wrong time, Phillip continued writing his thoughts.

Argon's knowledge of sailing proved essential to discovering common units of time and measure. Of course, I need to learn and use his, but it helps if I write them here in familiar terms.

The day and the night each have ten hours. Argon understands that summer hours are longer than winter hours, especially at the higher latitudes where they sail. Rather than the 360 degrees of the Hispanglos, a circle (and the circumference of World) has 400 degrees. I recall that some people on my world used a 400 degree circle, but they called the degree graduations something else. (Grads? From graduations? That sounds familiar.) Each grad is divided into 10 smaller divisions (decigrads) which are further divided into 10 divisions (centigrads). People here use base 10 for everything, and never managed to complicate things with base 12, or whatever it was the Hispanglos invented. I remember something about 12 being a sacred number for them. I think I've worked out the correlation between centigrads and something I remember: in the Anglican system, "a minute is a mile." For what it's worth, what Argon calls a "stadium" (another Latin word!) which is equal to one centigrad, is about half a mile. So, we're walking about 4–5 stadia an hour. That's not very fast, but in this heat and the loose sand, it's respectable. Since we have no idea how big the island is, nor where we are, it really makes no difference.

We have plenty of food. Argon knows the breadfruit, and even I recognized the coconuts. Argon finds other things, too–fruits that I do not know, but which Argon assures me are good to eat. He still wrinkles his nose at the pemmican, of which little is left.

Argon had fallen asleep, but that state escaped Phillip. He carefully disentangled himself from the boy's embrace and sat, leaning against the rock beside which they'd camped. The moon, so much larger, smoother, and brighter than Phillip's moon, was full, and about half way between the horizon and the top of the sky. Two of the outer planets that Argon called the Bright Travelers were also in the sky; so was the river of light–this world's Milky Way. Phillip had not had time before to examine the Shaman's book. Now he had both time and safety–and enough light–to do so. He opened the book. A piece of paper that had been wedged deeply into the fold fell into his hand.

Phillip Windrider, Spartus, the writing began. It is known to the Shamans of our people and of our brothers, especially the Hopituh Shi-nu-mu who have the oldest knowledge, that the magic we work in kiva was once much stronger and more widespread in our world. I believe that where you go you will find the strong magic. Be always careful. The magic is greater than any one person; and, it is always easier to do evil than to do good. You are sworn to the light, and we know that means you are sworn to what is good. What is good and what is evil are not always immediately apparent. I regret that I did not recognize your destiny when you first tried to claim the dragon to be your totem. On the other hand, you are a diligent and eager learner, and you absorbed much during the few moons we had. Please remember those lessons; remember your People. Wherever you go, you are our ambassador.

Phillip flipped the pages of the book. These secrets must not fall into the wrong hands, he thought. The entire book was written in the Athabascan language using the traditional alphabet, rather than the roman letters that had become more popular among the younger members of the nation. The Shaman used to say that our language was a gift from the oldest of our peoples and that our language, itself, was the greatest repository of knowledge. I don't think anyone on this world, except me, could read this. _Wait . . . Phillip opened his Athabascan-English dictionary. _It's all roman letters. Oh, the alphabet is printed here. He thought for a moment, and then tore out that page. Now, even a scholar would need a lifetime to figure it out–unless he knew English and our alphabet. I don't think that's going to happen! It's safe.

Next, Phillip opened his journal and wrote.

Argon cried again tonight. He's oddly childlike in some ways and oddly grown up in others. I told him, again, that we had to be in a place where we belonged because we had to be in harmony. I hope I'm right. I feel so close to him when I hold him when he's crying. The feeling is not (just) sexual, for we do not share boy magic when he cries himself to sleep.

He showed remarkable maturity when I explained that we were years away from his home–or did he? Does he really understand? Does he think that somehow I will fix things?

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