Castle Roland

The Translator

by David McLeod


Chapter 14

Published: 16 Mar 15

The Translator

by David McLeod

The Mission

Phillip Windrider, a human boy from the Athabascan Nation of Earth, and Maranon, an elven boy from the island of Solimoes on a world far distant from Phillip's, sat side by side on a seawall. The seawall protected the fishing village that was Maranon's home. Maranon took off his shoes as soon as he sat, and flexed his toes with relish. "Why do you not like to wear shoes?" Phillip asked.

"Bare feet provide a better grip on a boat," Maranon said. "And I've spent many more hours on a boat than on land." He put his arm around Phillip's waist and smiled. "You too, will find shoes uncomfortable after our voyage."

A voyage across this world's ocean, to a continent that the elves knew only through legend until a few decades ago when human slavers began to raid the island, Phillip thought. "Maranon, what do the slavers' ships look like? We should know, for should we encounter one, we must flee.

"Will our ship be fast enough to flee?" he added.

"I don't know," the boy said. "I didn't think about that."

"Then we must ask the cleric. He knows more than we are allowed to know. Perhaps he will tell us this." Phillip said. The elves had been very circumspect about what Phillip and his companions might know of their strategy for repelling the slave raiders. That, more than anything, brought out the danger inherent in the voyage. Phillip and his companions were not allowed to know so that they could not reveal secrets if they were captured.

"Come," Phillip continued. "Javari and Argon must hear the answers, as well."

Phillip and Maranon collected Javari and Argon from the village square where they were playing a game with the other boys of Javari's cohort. They found the senior, the chief cleric of the village, at his lunch. He was, however, glad to talk to them, and offered them bread and fruit. "You may not know our war-fighting strategy," he said after Phillip had explained their quest. "However, whatever other information about these people we have, you may know. What are your questions?"

"What do their ships look like?" Phillip said. "And. . . well, have you ever captured one of the raiders? One who could tell us how long the voyage might be?"

The cleric looked startled. "I am a fool not to have thought of that," he said. "There is a prisoner, here. But he does not speak our language."

Phillip smiled. It was a crooked smile. "I first met Argon when he was a prisoner on my world, and I was called to translate his language. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised."

The cleric led the boys to the rear of the temple and opened a small gate. "At one time, there was a nunnery at this temple; however, while I have seen our population increase, the number of women who wish to become clerics has declined. Now, there is only one nunnery on the island. We found it useful to keep our captive, here."

The room was empty save for a naked human who sat in one corner. The only light came from clerestory windows high on one wall. The man looked up when the door opened, and the companions entered. No, not a man, a tween, Phillip thought. He thought he saw a flicker of something in the boy's eyes when he caught sight of Phillip and Argon; however, whatever Phillip might have seen died when the boy saw the cleric and the two other elves.

"When you are able to speak with him, you may ask what questions you will about his ship and the voyage. You must not ask about how he was captured or what happened after he arrived on this island," the cleric cautioned. "You may tell him that if he speaks truth, he will be allowed to walk in the garden. If he does not, he must remain in this room."

Phillip's stomach roiled at the cleric's words. I must remember that this boy's people have stolen children from this island; I must remember that even the elves are capable of harshness.

Phillip sat, cross-legged, on the floor, and gestured for Argon to sit beside him, and then for Javari and Maranon to sit, as well. "Will you please leave us alone?" he asked the cleric, who nodded before departing. Phillip heard the door shut and then lock.

"My name is Phillip," he said. "What is your name?" He spoke the Latinate language he'd come to know as Elvish. The boy looked blankly at him.

"Wie ist Ihr Name? Wie heissen Sie?" he asked in the language of the Builders Lodge, not really expecting a reply. The boy met his expectation.

"What is your name?" he asked in Argon's tongue.

Phillip and Argon were both startled when the boy answered. His accent was strange to them, but they could understand him. "My name is Remy of Neuss. You are not prisoners. . . ?"

"The senior. . . the man who brought us here. . . said if you answered truthfully, you might walk in the garden," Phillip said, ignoring the boy's question. "My companion is a sembler; he will know if you speak the truth." It was not true that Argon was a sembler, but the boy's newfound ability to sense emotions was, if anything, more effective than a sembler's talent for truth-telling.

"Will I?" the boy asked. His voice was wistful, and Phillip saw the eagerness in his eyes.

"The senior said so, and I know him to be an honest man," Phillip replied. "What was the name of your ship?"

"Name?" the boy was clearly puzzled. "The men called it this old tub, but by no name that I heard."

"What was your duty?"

"Whatever needed doin'," Remy replied. "In the kitchen, in the scullery, emptyin' slops and thunder mugs."

"Cabin boy," Argon said. "I was cabin boy on. . . "

"Not cabin boy," Remy interrupted. "The cabin boys was catamites." He used the form of the word meaning "whore," rather than the form that meant "beloved." Remy saw the look that crossed Argon's face. "Uh, I'm sorry. . . "

"No, don't be sorry," Argon said. "I was cabin boy on my father's ship. I was not. . . no one was. . . a whore." He shuddered. "But I did have to empty the buckets from the latrines." Argon grinned, and Remy almost smiled before he remembered where he was.

Remy seemed more and more anxious to talk, and close questioning by Phillip and Argon revealed the description of the old tub, but little more.

"May I walk in the garden, now?" Remy asked as the boys prepared to leave.

"I will tell the cleric you spoke openly and fully," Phillip said, "and ask that you may." He knocked on the door to be let out.

Argon scarcely ate any supper he was so excited about what he had learned. "Their ship is like my father's: five masts, high stern castle, square rigged in front with lateen sails on the two after masts. . . " The boy described, and with Phillip's help, sketched what Phillip thought resembled the Hispanglo galleons that had brought those people to Phillip's land. Phillip, however, was disappointed. Remy did not know how to count past ten, and had no idea of how long the voyage had been.

The next morning, Phillip went back to the cleric, who invited him to sit on the seawall. "We have allowed the boy the freedom of the garden," the cleric said. "I wish that we did not have to keep him captive, for he does not seem to be evil. However, he has seen too much, and must not be allowed to return to his people.

"How useful was his information?" The cleric changed the subject, abruptly.

"He described their ship," Phillip said. "So that we will know what to avoid should we encounter others like it. I think, however, that we would be well advised to avoid any contact. . . "

The cleric nodded. "And how long the voyage?"

"He had no idea," Phillip said.

The cleric and Phillip sat in companionable silence for several minutes, watching the waves curl onto the beach. The cleric sighed. "There is another," he said, "He has been held elsewhere, and has proven to be. . . recalcitrant, I suppose. I have sent for him."

Phillip's Journal

Everything in the village centers on our journey. Everyone older than the youngest child is doing something: building the boat, gathering supplies, weaving and sewing sails. They had to send for cotton from villages far inland; that has been another source of delay. Of course, as I have learned, time means something entirely different to the elves, who measure their lifespan in millennia, than it does to me. I am the only impatient person in the village!

The headman of this village and the senior cleric have taken on the roles my uncle and the Shaman held at Chaco Canyon. They are teaching me as much as I can absorb of their history, their legends and stories, their language, their customs, and–in the case of the cleric–their magic. I learn slowly, but I do learn. Now that Argon has discovered his innate talent of empathy, he is also studying with the cleric. I am in school twice each day–once for me and once to translate for Argon. He is becoming comfortable with day-to-day Elvish, but his vocabulary does not include many of the words needed to learn magic.

Javari is learning spells to purify seawater, since we cannot carry enough drinking water for the voyage. From this, I learned yet another thing about magic. The magic to purify water is an example of "craft magic." The spells Javari learns, he learns to perform by rote without having to "see" or understand magic. Argon confided in me that he knows a spell to purify seawater, but that it is essential for Javari to feel he is an important part of this adventure. Argon is growing up quickly. I am glad. His maturity helps him deal with the great distance between "now" and his home, which lies tens of thousands of years in the past or the future.

Javari and Maranon also work closely with one of their uncles, a smith. They are very closed-mouth about what they do, citing "guild secrets." I believe they are learning the smith's craft magic, so that they can keep the metal pulleys and capstans in order and repair.

I remembered what Japura told me about scorbutus, and asked about the fermented breadfruit that is a source of Vitamin C. Of course, they don't call it that. I've tasted it; it tastes a bit like pickled cactus. Argon turned up his nose at it, calling it bologna, but he knows that he'll have to eat it, too.

I am torn between two goals. The first is my promise to get Argon to his home. Nothing may interfere with that. I have agreed to lead this expedition to Elvenholt to take these elves' message to their king only because they have assured me that in Elvenholt I will find mages who can help open a gate to Argon's time. The other goal is my own destiny. The more I learn about dragons the more I want to find a dragon. . . and to find out if I really am a dragonrider.

Phillip and a tween about Phillip's height stood face to face in the square. They both held machetes. The tween was an acolyte–a junior cleric, Phillip thought. The cleric who had given them the machetes said they were spelled not to cut. Phillip was little comforted, but had agreed to learn this weapon. The instructor was a senior cleric; the elven boys called him "Weaponsmaster." He would not allow Phillip and Javari to spar with one another. "You would teach each other bad habits," he said.

The training was formal, and reminded Phillip of the ritual of taekwondo from his own world. Once again, he thought, once again I honor Jake Paloma and the others of my people who taught me so much.

Two hours later, Phillip was exhausted, and both boys were marked with red stripes on chest, tummy, arms, and thighs. "Enough for today," the weaponsmaster said. "Jamari, go with Phillip to the healer–and then to the baths. Javari? You're next."

"Why do we go to the healer?" Phillip asked Jamari as the boy led him away from the arena.

"My wrist. . . it's broken, I think," Jamari said. "And your bruises–"

"What?" Phillip interrupted. "I broke your wrist? But the spell. . . ?"

"The spell only dulls the blades so they will not cut," Jamari said. "And you are very strong."

"I'm sorry!" Phillip said. "Please don't. . . I mean. . . I didn't. . . "

"Oh, silly," the elven boy said. "This is not the first time a bone has been broken, nor will it be the last. It will heal. And. . . well, to spar with you brings me great honor." He smiled, and took Phillip's hand in his own uninjured one. "It would honor me more if you would share yourself with me."

Phillip saw the intensity, the yearning in the boy's eyes. "Thank you," he said. "I would like that very much."

In the two days that passed while Jamari's wrist healed, Phillip joined his companions at archery. He was surprised at first, that he enjoyed this part of his training. We lost much of this back home, he thought. I tried it, a couple of times, at festivals. My uncle wanted me to learn, and seemed disappointed that I did not do so. The few men and boys who kept the ancient skills alive were laughed at often enough. I'm sorry to say I was among those who laughed. I rather wish I hadn't, now. I wish my uncle could see me. . . Phillip stood motionless for a long time, reflecting on what he had lost, and on what he had gained. I was not unhappy on the Res, but I was, I think, not entirely happy, either. The voice of the weaponsmaster drew his attention back to the practice field.

"This bow is shaped like those of my people," Phillip said to the weaponsmaster. "But it seems easier to draw."

"Perhaps it is because of your strength," the cleric replied. "I saw your strength when you first sparred with Jamari."

Phillip blushed at the reminder that his strength had caused a fracture to Jamari's wrist. The boy had been in pain, but had continued sparring.

"I did not like hurting him," Phillip said. "Perhaps I will like learning the bow, better than learning the machete."

The weaponsmaster-cleric frowned. "Spartus," he said. His use of Phillip's formal title of "dragonrider" caught Phillip's attention. "Spartus, you learn the sword and the bow so that you can do more than hurt. You learn so that you can kill. Do you not know this?"

Phillip stood silently, and then said. "I know it in my mind. I knew it in my mind when elven boys armed with machetes and bows first accosted Argon and me. I know that even the elves, who are so beautiful and so full of life and love, can kill. I know that someday, I might have to kill."

"Can you do that?" the cleric asked.

Phillip looked directly at the man. "In defense of my companions, in defense of that in which I believe, I can."

The man nodded. "You have the right of it," he said.

Each day, Phillip made an entry in his journal, if only to note that another day had passed. At first, he'd kept track of the number of days, but found it more frustrating to know how much time had passed than not to know. Even though training filled the boys' days, Phillip found time to ask his friend and mentor, the cleric he knew as Tucano, about electrons.

"Argon told me that it would be harder to start a fire with flint and steel than it was on my world," he began. "When I first arrived here, I found that to be true. But, when I applied boy magic, it was easy. Easier than on my world. I think it is because the electrons are more tightly bound to the atom on this world than on mine, and that magic, somehow, loosens those bonds. Is this true?"

"Hmm, I do not know those words," Tucano said. "However, I have some notion of what you are saying."

For the next several hours, Phillip and Tucano worked to create a common understanding of the solar system _model of the atom. Phillip learned that when a cleric cast a _light spell, he used magical energy to raise electrons to a higher orbit, and that when the electrons fell back to their original orbit, they emitted light. That's like. . . what were those things called? He thought, but dismissed that question when Tucano offered to show Phillip how to cast the spell. Phillip struggled, but it was only after several tendays of considerable effort that he was able to cause a silver ring to glow for a few seconds.

Phillip's Journal

Given enough time, I may become a mage and an archer. (And there always seems to be enough time. They're waiting for more cotton cloth to sew the sails!) My uncle, I think, would be very proud of my skill with the bow. I am sorry that he will never know. The elven boys shoot with more accuracy than I. I've learned that their eyesight, especially in dim light, is much more acute than mine. I can, however, draw a stronger bow than they can.

Tomorrow, we will see the design for the boat. Javari and Maranon are very excited. Argon, who has been consulting with the boat builders for several tendays, will say nothing about the design, but he is bursting with pride at his role in creating it.

The boat would be 35 feet long, and would have two masts. The mainmast, near the center, would be tall; a second mast, a mere stick at the stern. There would be a bowsprit and a jib sail, and a cabin with four bunks. "I do not think we will need four bunks," Maranon said. He grinned, and squeezed Argon's hand.

Argon returned the boy's smile. "The upper bunks are for storage," he said. "See? There will be nets to keep things from falling onto your head."

The senior cleric watched Phillip and Javari spar. It was the first time they had been allowed to practice against one another, and both were hesitant. The weaponsmaster stopped the exercise and spoke sternly to them. "You will have to practice during your journey," he said. "You must overcome your reluctance to hurt one another!"

"But the spell!" Phillip said. "We'll not be able. . . " Javari's grin stopped him.

"You've been learning that, too?" Phillip asked. Javari nodded.

Phillip and Javari did a little better after that, and the senior applauded. "Now," he said, "would you visit me–on the seawall–after your bath? Please bring the others, as well."

The wind was light and at their backs. The sea was placid. "Storm coming," Argon said as he jumped atop the seawall.

The senior nodded. "You have a far greater understanding of the weather of the sea than we," he said. "Phillip tells me you also know how to navigate by the stars, and that you can make a chart–

"What's wrong?" the senior asked.

"I didn't tell Phillip that it was a guild secret," Argon said. "It's my fault."

"Oh, my," the senior said.

"I didn't say how you made it or what it looked like," Phillip said.

Argon nodded. "It's okay, then."

"It may not be," the senior said. "You see, I asked you here to talk about navigation. How will you find your way across the sea? You can steer by the stars at night, of course, but what about during the day?"

"Oh, that's not a problem," Phillip said. "I have a compass–

"Now what's wrong?" he asked Argon.

"How does the compass help?" Argon said. His hands formed a secret sign of the Builders Lodge. The boy was thinking of the draftsman's compass that was one of the symbols of the lodge.

"This one's different," Phillip said, to the utter confusion of the others. "This one always points to the north. I checked it against the stars one night."

Argon nodded. "We'll need a cross-staff, too. You guys have to remember, though. The compass and the cross-staff–they're secrets of the Sailors Guild."

Phillip and the two elven boys nodded.

"It's beautiful!" Argon said as he opened the wooden box. "Thank you, thank you both." He slid one stick along the other, marveling at the precision with which the device had been constructed. "This is so much better than I've ever seen before."

The Master Smith and the Master Carpenter, who had traveled from their villages halfway across the island, nodded. They had no idea why these boys needed this odd device, nor how it would be used, but they accepted the thanks and praise of the human boy who had the confidence of the senior and who was not, they had been assured, allied with slavers.

"I don't have the ephemeris," Argon said, when he showed the cross-staff to the others. "But this will help us stay on a line of latitude."

"Why is that important?" Javari asked. "I mean, we don't know where Elvenholt is."

"It's to make sure we don't lose the wind," Argon replied. "See, at the equator, the winds are light and. . . mixed up. They may not blow the way you want to go, and they may not blow at all. The same thing happens about 35 grads south. You can be marooned there, if the wind doesn't blow. Between the equator and 35 grads south, the wind blows mostly to the west. . . toward the northwest if you're south of the equator, and toward the southwest if you're north of the equator.

"These are Guild secrets, you know, so you must tell no one. . . even though you're sailors, you're not in the Guild."

Javari and the others nodded.

"The senior has told me many stories about Elvenholt," Phillip said. "It is clear that rain forest lies to the north, and desert to the west. I believe the country is in a subtropical zone. If I'm correct, it will lie about 30 grads south."

"With the cross-staff, I can keep us on that line," Argon said, confidently.

Phillip's Journal

I still am unaccustomed to the mix of technology and magic that I see here. Argon described a way of determining our latitude using a couple of sticks of wood. Well, if not determine it, at least keep us on a straight line while we try to cross the ocean. A smith and a carpenter collaborated and made the device. The wood is incredibly hard. It might be something akin to bois d' arc (the Osage orange) from which our best bows were made. The lines that measure the angle are etched into the wood with incredible precision. The brass piece that connects the two pieces of wood while allowing one to slide along the other is beautifully machined–handmade, rather, for I've seen no evidence of the kind of machinery that would make it–and beautifully decorated with. . . runes, perhaps, beautiful filigree, at least. On the other hand, without a reference and an accurate clock, we cannot determine longitude.

I have seen no clocks. (Nor, I think, would the elves use them if they had them!) However, Argon says he will keep a record of the distance we travel–he can do arithmetic, and will multiply time and speed to get distance. I still don't know how he determines our speed: something about the swallowtail pennant that flies from the top of the mast, and something about the wake of the boat. And, I think, something about the magic of the mariners, which he was learning from his father.

Every day, near noon, Argon would take the cross-staff from its box and hold it to his eye, pointing it at the sun. He would move the crossbar along the staff, and note the position using the marks along the staff. When he was satisfied that he had caught the sun at its zenith, he would record the sun's angle above the horizon in Phillip's journal. Phillip remembered his 8th grade trigonometry, and understood. He's creating an ephemeris for this era. . . if we stay here for, what? Half a year? Yes, that should do it. If we stay here for half a year, he'll know the inclination of this world's axis, and be able to incorporate that in the readings he takes on our voyage. And, as slow as things happen around here, it will probably be a half a year before the boat is built! Phillip closed his journal, and hugged Argon. "You're brilliant, you know," he said. The boy just grinned.

The senior summoned Phillip to the temple. "The second prisoner? The one of whom I spoke? He has been brought here."

Phillip prepared for the second interview more carefully than for the first. This time, only he and Argon were to enter the cell, and the prisoner would be in manacles, and chained to the wall. Phillip and Argon spend three days practicing, and rehearsing. Maranon and Javari watched the preparations with a mixture of laughter and horror, as Phillip taught Argon the "good cop, bad cop" routines he had learned from the Hispanglo television. Argon had protested. "This is so transparent!" he said. "It's stupid."

"Nevertheless, it works," Phillip said. Argon bowed to his assurances.

Both Phillip and Argon were exhausted when they left the man's cell. The cleric had cooperated by removing the man to an unlit cell, and providing only bread and water for the three days during which Phillip and Argon rehearsed. Whether it was the "good cop, bad cop" routine or judicious use of the cues gleaned through Argon's empathy, the man broke. After that, it was easy to get information from him.

"Their country. . . of which Neuss is a seaport. . . is located some 50 or more grads south of the equator," Phillip reported to the senior and his companions. There's a country of humans north of it, and he knows that the country of the elves is north of that. This is consistent with what we already know. He was captured after his first voyage, but said it lasted about three and a half months, and that they sailed with the wind most of the time. Since we will do the same, we have, at least, an estimate of the time required."

"Not exactly," Argon said. "They sailed from 50 grads south to some 20 grads south. We will sail nearly straight across to about 30 grads south. World is fatter, there. And, their course. . . " he drew a right triangle in the sand.

Cosine of latitude, and the Pythagorean theorem! Phillip remembered. Too bad I don't have a calculator. . . But it was Argon who drew diagrams in the sand and muttered to himself as he calculated. "About two and a half months," he said. He looked up at Phillip, and grinned. "What?" he asked.

"Nothing," Phillip said, "except that you must tell me more often not to underestimate you!"

Javari and Maranon gave their boat to a cousin. "You'll have to rename it, of course," Javari told the boy.

"Why must he rename the boat?" Phillip asked.

Javari blushed and looked at his feet. Argon answered for him. "You want to name the new boat after your swallow, don't you?"

Javari nodded. "But it's Phillip's right," he said. "I was going to ask. . . "

Maranon added, "It was Xander who brought us to you." He took Phillip's hand. "May we? Please?"

Phillip hugged Maranon. "Argon? Are you agreed?"

Argon nodded.

"Then Xander it is," Phillip said.

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