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Guama, the archipelagic world

English version of "Le monde de Guama" (five first chapters available)
Welcome to true literary agents who might be interested...



Ancient Future







Volume I



Guama, the Archipelagic World


By Denis Duclos


For Alexander

For Jack Vance and Terry Pratchett, who proved that humour rhymes with genius.


For Robert Merle and Umberto Eco, who reconcile common people and scholars.

For Roger Ferreri, who knows that children love stories which don’t necessarily tell the truth,
So do Adults…


Every character in this book is fictitious; any resemblance to any real persons is totally accidental.


Prologue

One evening of June 1931, near the French Guiana coast, among Kapok-trees, Saginese and white orchids.

« Guama? No ! » said Peter, as firmly as he could, his brain clouded in choulcave mist. « This is all nonsense. You’re playing with me. »

The Indian lit the lamp hung up on a pole.
« All right, it is pure fiction. But… men went away and never came home. Did they find anything? »

He waved evasively, then let his hand drop with unspeakable weariness. His pout added a net of deep wrinkles on his face, already crumpled like a ripe pitanga.

« Did you meet any of those men? » asked Peter.

Tabiraho livened up.
« O yes! Runaway convicts, white Maroons... All of them were hurriedly making canoes that they dragged on the beach. Then they fled, like a shot, heading to the North-East. »
« They would have been caught in the swirls of the Grandes Bouches… »
« Quite possibly, my son. But in this case, why didn’t the Rio return their corpses, as it does with everything else, from here to Cape Sable ? »
« Their bodies would have been swept away. The piranhas would not have left a single morsel of them. »
The Indian smiled.
« Everything is possible, my Dear. But when the river changes into a lake, its surface becoming as smooth as the skin of a young Chamolah, you can round the Rème Rock, and reach the currents which take you to the Isles. If you can’t catch them, you will find nothing. Ever… »
Old Tabiraho was shaking his head, his twinkling gaze fleeing over the foliage. His guest kept silent, sensing that he was going to say more.
« Look, Peter » solemnly stated the Indian
« I do believe that Guama exists. In any case, it existed, fifty solar cycles ago, when I was scarcely more than a toddler, running among the edible dogs and the dwarf pigs… »
« Any details? Any particular memories?»
« O yes, I do have some! »
« Then, what… what are you waiting for… ? »
Tabiraho squinted. He seemed amused by the sudden impatience which had gripped Peter. A gentle irony sipped through his sparse and uneven teeth.
« Is it really worth delaying a good healing sleep? You need it so much, young man. »
« I know what’s good for me. Thanks for your care, but I think I got rid of that bloody parasite. »
« Yes, but you’re still weak and vulnerable. »

Peter Boucquard had to agree. He was gaunt, his skin yellow, his belly painful, and he had lost almost fifty pounds in a week. Perhaps, Necator Americanus had caught up with him, just leaving a trail on a mango, and was still resisting any of the remedies offered by the latest tropical medicine.

He was just entering his twenty-ninth year when his life had turned to vagrancy. Two months ago, he still had a well paid position as a prospector for the Equinox French Petroleum Company, in Venezuela. But, caught in the war between Standard Oil and Shell Petroleum, for the control of the lake Maracaïbo, the company was tottering. Staff had to be reduced. The young man was laid off for « hunting with the Natives, instead of drilling around Segunlla and Mene Grande ». He decided to use his forced vacation to journey through the four Guianas (Venezuelan, Dutch, British and French) planning to seek information about Commander Augustin Coriac and his strange destiny.

Augustin Coriac was a true product of the nineteenth century, a bold sailor, merchant and adventurer. In January 1881, Pierre’s grandfather Claude-Marie Boucquard, master mariner, moored at the mouth of the river Milpa and waited for his friend Coriac. But the man never came back from his escapade in the forest. Boucquard combed the jungle in vain looking for him.
According to the rumour, Coriac had mistakenly entered dangerous territories. Had he been abducted by evil convicts, or by pirates scouring the Caribbean seas, from Louisiana to Barbados, and even up to the muddy waters of the Orinoco?
Grand father Boucquard returned to France, anxious about his friend. It was suggested that Coriac was living in hiding, maybe in Brazil. He had got himself into trouble with the French authorities. This disappearing came at a convenient time for him to change his embarrassing identity, and catch any opportunity to get involved in some profitable smuggling activities.
Was it to get rid of this embarrassing ghost or to finally come to terms with the moral burden carried by his family that Pierre, forty years later, was following the tracks of the vanished Commander?
To tell the truth, he could not explain how such a purpose had led him to this region, certainly magnificent, but hazardous, deprived and populated with men of dubious identity. After all, he had never been very adventurous. When he was small, he would hide in the dog kennel during the storm. And later on, give in to the gang leader, when competing for the favours of the sweetest girls.
How could this impulse send him running through the jungle, asking questions, risking his life at the hands of fierce natives, always searching for fugitives from the penal colony? They always caught the fugitives but they didn’t always return their catch alive to the wardens. Tactfully, they were not asked how their prey had died. The absence of nails on the hands and feet of the corpses – sometimes headless – spoke eloquently enough.
They had inherited hatred for « londrism » from their parents. The philanthropic doctrine attributed to Albert Londres, a journalist who had dedicated his life to alerting the French public to the plight of the convicts. The penitentiary system had been abolished, they had lost their income and now, they didn’t like to be submitted to any interrogation.

Whatever pushed Pierre Boucquard to put his life and his health in jeopardy, in the land of tiny little frogs which can kill you just by jumping into your palm, and boas, so loving that they could change a fat dwarf into a lanky giant? He was the first one to doubt that his interest was solely in the name of bygone characters of a family saga.
Did he expect to find a treasure? He would have greeted this suggestion with scorn.
But if you had the chance to sit with him by the fire after a good meal washed down with spiced rum, maybe he would have opened his heart.

He dreamed sometimes or rather had visions at night, visions more vivid than reality.
He found himself at the bottom of a dry well, surrounded by rubble and stones covered with moss, in the company of the lifeless Augustin Coriac, his face stuck in the mud. A young voice rose or maybe the sound was coming from a vague aura, reflected by the inner wall like ripples on a sandy beach. And the voice was clearly pleading:
« Help me, Pierre! I am a prisoner of time. If you do not deliver me, I will know a thousand deaths.
-But… How ? mumbled Pierre.
- I don’t know, answered the voice with despair. Search for me in the past, and in the future. On the oceans surrounding the seas… Hurry up! I do not want to live eternally in this squalid trench, between life and death.

The same dialogue took place time and time again. Then the vision faded, and every time a replica of the dead man stood up and looked straight into his eyes apparently without resentment. Then he became transparent, disappeared and Peter woke up with a start.
The last time he had that dream, a few days before his departure for the Americas, the spectre had been more specific:
“Look for me over by the Oyanas! I am waiting for you. You will be rewarded.”
- What do you mean?
There was no reply from the figure. It came closer, burst like a soap bubble and never reappeared.

For several weeks, Pierre Boucquard had wandered through coastal mangrove swamps. In the suffocating heat he prowled from village to village, on the lookout for any clue hidden in the tales of those old men who could sometimes recall century old events.


Coming back from the Rio Milpa springs, he had stopped at Point des Diables. Trembling with fever, he was longing for some rest, before he could reach a city and sell a few golden feathers from the paradise birds he had caught, they would make him rich enough to buy his return to France.
He had entered the welcoming carbey, refreshed by the breeze blowing through the delta. As usual, the keeper of the place, an old Soroakl Indian named Tabiraho had welcomed him fondly, and had offered him to share the turtle soup and the choulcave chique.
During these nights, drenched in sweat and suffering from stomach cramps, almost unconscious, he could not refuse the help of concoctions and shamanic incantations. The following days, the convulsions had stopped. He had slept for a long time, and the sun was setting when he got up to thank the Medicine-Man. Tabiraho had shrugged his shoulders, and signed to him to lie in the hammock next to his.
In front of them, the muddy waters were racing in wavelets through the quivering silhouettes of the trees. As the solar disc disappeared, the surface of the water became translucent. The crickets had laid down their bows, and the blow frogs had deflated their cheeks, laying down for a while their exasperating two-note trumpets.
Carried on the velvet wings of the trade winds, Peter thought he heard the moans of the slaves of bygone days, waiting to be shared among masters as miserable as they were, some lucky enough would be bought by the Sisters of St Joseph de Cluny.
Boucquard told Tabiraho how he felt. But the old man had put him right.
« These rumours do not come from the slaves, although they can be heard when the breeze from the West crosses the fort where the human cargo used to be kept.
Neither do they come from the groans of the convicts who were stored on the Reme islet, nearby. No, what you are hearing are the rumours of Guama islands. »
As in agreement, the river had turned blue, dividing itself in fragments of oily grey, getting slightly darker every minute.

Peter spat the choulcave nut, and took a fresh one out of its damp leaf. He curled up in the hammock, ready for the great tale.

Tabiraho remembered the blessed days of his childhood. He could not have been more than twelve years old, as he had not yet entered the ritual carbey shelter, where the boy’s initiation took place. He could remember it well. Twenty families were living in the village. Life was carefree. Every night, men brought back a good catch in their canoes. Piranhas and kouhirs had not yet infested the waters, and turtles were still abundant. One morning, the Soroakls saw two extraordinary characters appear on their shores. They were ‘white’, but only in a manner of speaking, because one of them was red in complexion, as if his face and hands had been soaked in rocou. He was tall and his muscles were wrapped up in fat. The other one was young, slim and blond, so pale he almost looked blue, his nose like an eagle beak. Easily amused by the children’s game, but also sombre and restless, both men wore broad-brimmed felt hats, greasy with filth, big black boots, and dirty jackets with metal buttons.

They offered to exchange tobacco for food. Captain-Papa, Tabiraho’s grand-father and Cacique of the village welcomed them wholeheartedly because he was always ready to have a good time. After enjoying a good meal, chatting and drinking, the strangers strolled along the sand tracks, followed by the little busy-bodies, Tabiraho in the lead.

Off the path, the youngest of the strangers noticed a little isolated hut. It belonged to Chochitle, the wise woman. He asked the children, with sign language, if he could go there. Scared by the reputation of this weird character Tabiraho’s cousins and friends refused to answer. The noisy flock became silent and scattered away as the men moved onto the sacred grounds.

Eventually, the young Indian’s curiosity took over. He followed them from behind the trees. When he reached the fences made of woven red lianas, the thin one had already entered the hut. Tabiraho saw a gap at the bottom of the wall, and crouched to peep through. He had to screw his eye to get accustomed to the darkness inside.
Chochitle was immobile. In front of the all-seeing stone, her dried breast stuck like a W against her thick chest. On the fire, blooming branches were giving aromatic smoke. Her head covered with prickly hair like a porcupine, the old woman had set on the black surface ten fat blotchy frogs that she chopped in half in one blow.

A green slime sprung out of their agonizing throat, which, instead of putting the fire out, burst out in bubbles and sparks. Their guts ran down a channel into a volcanic glass vase.
Accustomed to the sacrifices in honour of the All-Seeing, Tabiraho was not concerned by the fate of the amphibians. To prepare themselves for the bravery rites, children used to tear them apart and swallow their insides.

« Don’t think that you’ll make me throw up, said Pierre Boucquard, slowly chewing his choulcave. You’re not alone practising these kinds of things. One of my sailor friends, from the far away land of Switzerland, used to put live mice in his mouth, to impress the farmers, and wait a while before crunching them. I did not believe him until one day he caught a big rat in the hold, and ate it before my eyes, starting with the tail. »
“Westerners are savages”, answered the old Indian without a smile. “At least, we are not trying to show off!”

He continued his tale. In the house of the sorceress, the blond stranger was arguing, gesticulating and talking enigmatically. He wanted to know about a place located beyond the seas, toward the North. Chochitle pointed to the fire; her rasping voice rose:
« Apann, apann » (« On the water », in ancient Nahuatl)
« Apann? »
The white man looked puzzled, then appeared to understand.
« Tepetondli na challi… » (There is a sandy mound…)
« Challi? »
« Si, si, confirmed the old woman turning to Spanish, hay una isla pequeňita, donde podras cambiar de piel ». (There is a small island where you will be able to change your skin… »
« Truly? Where is it? »
« I do not know but you will meet war, I can clearly see that…
« War? »
« Si, si, she continued, her voice choked with emotion… Your soul is a michcomitl, a jar of clouds. I can hear battle. You will see the world of Apann and the Azure Islands. You will meet with many nations. You will meet the noble Lords and encounter powerful Wizards. The spirit of Ollin, the god of movement, is in you, bouncing back up to the skies. In the arms of ravishing women, you will be stripped of your vanity… Yo te lo digo, Joven. I am telling you, young man… »
« How can you see all of this, old woman? »
The ancient priestess, doomed to be celibate, burst out in laughter which rent the air like a torn sheet of paper.
« This is your destiny. You were born on nemontemi, a missing day in cosmic time. You will have to design your own life. And this is clearly shown in the vapours from the flowers.
« Can you foresee my fate? What will happen to me? »
I cannot tell you, even if I could see it, young man. Do not worry. You are surrounded with friends, and you will know success. In spite of your vanity and your too vivid intelligence, your horse will lead you over the ruins… Black armoured foes straight out of the volcanoes will cringe away from your bravery. The century old Chicauaques are watching over you. However, beware of the palace of Power, and its executioners. Beware of the sleeping jaguar that can kill the rabbit with a flick of its paw without even waking up. »
She got up, her eyes bulging :
« Tlacacalilizli! The arrows, the living arrows will kill! Hell…. He is dead! » She was shaking her thorny head all around, screaming, with deep sobs in her voice.
« Who is dead? » insisted the young man. But she did not reply, nodding above the fire, grumbling and breathing as heavily as a feverish chamolah.
Under shock, the white one joined his friend who was waiting outside, his hands resting on his pistol butts. They made their way back to the village where the little Soroakl crowded around them again.
« Where are you coming from? asked Kiliro cheekily to his cousin Tabiraho who had discreetly joined the gang from another path.
« Shut up, mangrove macaque ! » he answered, pretending to be angry. He intended to share his new secrets for at least three bunches of marchilles.



The Ancients were sitting on the Council benches, made of tree trunks. Captain-Papa, Tabiraho’s grand father shared around the evening pipe. Two nubile girls holding musky flowers approached them. They had accepted to sleep with the visitors, but the men refused, at the risk of infringing on the elders’ social code. The youngest one, his eyes looking like mother Purpuril after losing her fledging, bent over the meal stone. He took a leather map out of his pocket, which he unrolled slowly. If the men recognized the place, they did not acknowledge it at first, giving their spokesman the authority to do the talking.
The stranger pointed to a group of islands, circled with red ink. Then, he asked questions which were easy to understand. They became even clearer when the young Barbarian took out a few shiny coins from a purse hidden under his jacket. They fell with a clink on the stone.
Eventually, Captain Papa got up. He took the young man’s hands in his. He would take them to Guama Islands. They were the islands circled on the map. The Ancient accepted for the challenge, not for the gold –the Soroakls were a proud people. He would show them the courage and the sailing skills of his people. During the voyage, he would leave Tabiraho’s father in charge of the village. The latter accepted without batting an eyelid although he would have preferred to join them in the adventure. He would now have to solve old women’s quarrels, discipline the unruly, and inaugurate the oncoming yearly cassava festival.
The preparation took a whole moon month. Captain papa told them their small craft would not last in the currents of the Passage. They had to build a special gum-tree pirogue, full of rubber sap, to slide like a dolphin, ready to fight with the contracting muscles of the sea and its violent thrusts; and its shell, striated like the belly of a whale calf. The stubborn strangers wanted to make a raft in any old way, but facing the blank refusal of the Indians, they resigned themselves. They played dice and watched them work.
The youngest one, curious by nature, spent his evenings learning the rudiments of the native’s language with the children, excellent teachers and remarkably patient.
The enormous marocal trunk, skilfully dug and carved, had now given birth to an elegant boat with high sides. It still had to be properly equipped and then, dedicated to Phasogryge, the Soroakl God of voyages.
The fattest one wanted to rush things. At times, he angrily got up and seemed ready for anything. Seeing him constantly strip down and reassemble his rifle, Tabiraho was getting worried. But the young one with fiery eyes was the boss and restrained his hot-headed companion who complied like a well-trained dog.

While listening to Tabiraho, questions assailed Pierre Boucquard’s hazy mind. Could these white men, who had come during the old man’s childhood, have any link with Augustin Coriac? Could one of them be Augustin, and the other, a friend… or a servant? Maybe Jean Latoile, who had been his “secretary” and odd-job-man according to the reports of the time? Besides, the rare portraits of Coriac showed a thin young man with an aquiline profile and an intense domineering gaze... and Latoile was described as a surly but easy-going giant.
Tabiraho, his eyes shining with choulcave, continued his tale with renewed attentiveness, juggling with the magic of words, and sprinkling his Creole with the beautiful metaphors of Oyaricoulet, his native dialect.
The boat, he remembered, had been solemnly named “Doryo”, “The Friend of Dreams”. She was ready on the morning of the new moon. They filled her belly with supplies, tender green corn, cassava beans, juicy pitangas and woke up the white men. Informed by his brother, Tabiraho had run to witness their departure.
His grandfather smiled at him, and settled at the prow, carved like the head of a hornbill. Two happy chosen ones – Sandhal and Rathal – climbed in and shoved their sacks under the seats. They all sang the hymn of departures, and they helped push the craft to the rapids, off the shore.
“They’ll be back” said Tabiraho’s mother. The child understood she was talking about his grandfather and his two uncles, Sandhal-the-sharp and Rathal-the-wise-one, and not about the white men.
Time flew. Seven, eight… twelve moons, or more?
When would Grandad return ? Tabiraho was looking for anxiety in his mother’s eyes but no sign of sadness troubled her beautiful face. Finally the young Indian got used to the absence .
One evening, while the children were diving from the crooked branch of the huge Kapok tree, over the sleepy creek, cousin Kiliro pointed his finger to the horizon:
“There they are!”…and fell backward in the misty water. A trained eye could distinguish through the filigree of the flamboyants the low shape of Doryo heading into the wind.
Then they heard the monotonous chant of the Great Sailors sung by deep voices. The villagers assembled on the landing observing the silhouettes bowing rhythmically to see if anyone was missing. When they counted three straw hats, typical of the region, a unanimous cry of joy rose in the air. No one was surprised, or cared about the fate of the white men.
The happiness of the homecoming was shadowed by the state of the men. Weakened, their skin peeling from sunburn, parched by the salt, straight and silent but somehow smiling, they walked through the flowered branches of the welcoming party. Then they rushed to the jars, gulped with delight the fresh water, and went to the carbey where they slumped down on the ground, attended by their relatives.

Atl Roatl, Captain-Papa summed up their story in a few words: “We’ve found the islands. We left the white men there, after many wild adventures. Now, let me rest. I will tell you everything tomorrow.” Having spoken, he sprawled on his mat and immediately fell in a deep sleep.

Tabiraho took great trouble over his narrative, so as to keep Boucquard in a breathless state of anticipation; and when the old man kept silent, letting the purpurils whistle their symphony, Pierre dared not break his thoughts, scared to see him close up like an oyster over a precious pearl.
When the old man deigned once more to take up the thread of his tale, hopefully he would learn more about the mythical Guama, and perhaps something concrete about the Coriac affair.

Finally Tabiraho continued, “The next morning, everyone crowded in the garden around Captain-Papa who now held the prestigious title of “Navigator”. My grandmother, a beautiful Oyana woman of light complexion made the people sit in a circle, the children on their knees, and distributed blave nuts. Behind, on the Modesty Bench, Chochitle like a subtle shadow was crouched. Only Sandhal’s mother, Managora, the potion maker was sitting by her.
The Navigator appeared in a white gown. He drank a little blave juice and sat on his sculpted marocal seat. He was instantly assailed with questions. He smiled at their childish impatience, and related a tale which engraved itself for ever in my memory.”

Peter felt dizzy, facing the spiral which opened before him: a tale within the tale… From this point, was it Tabiraho speaking, or the reincarnation of his ancestor, Captain Papa whose bones, religiously gathered in an embalmed jaguar skin, were probably hanging from one of the stakes of the welcoming Carbey ?







I. Mayty (Isola Magna)

Captain-Papa started by reassuring his audience that the honour of the Soroakl was intact.

“Let no infamous rumour run among you! The white men were not eaten, robbed, nor thrown overboard. We accomplished our task, following the Code that was transmitted to us from time immemorial. Our secret name of “Celestial Conveyers” remains untarnished. Our guests safely left us in a very bustling place where dangers are far greater for our race than theirs.”

“Yes, but where did you leave them?” cried the jumpy young ones.

Captain-Papa pacified them with a sign of his hand.

“You will know soon enough.”

And he told them how they had reached the deep waters.

“When I felt sure that the sea sprays lining the back of the ocean signalled the first swirls, I threw the Doryo forward. The ship moaned and cried like a woman in labour. The white men, worried by the powers eager to engulf them, asked we Soroakl to reconsider the trip. But that was impossible: the boat was flying towards the Reme rocks guarding the estuary and very soon was rounding the bend of Cap Sable. Facing us loomed an advancing front of sharp breaking waves. The travellers yelled that the boat would wreck. But I, Captain Papa, know the cunning tactics of the Gods: you have to cross the pass at a precise date and time; otherwise the ‘monster’ - that is to say the Great Current - will not carry you on its back. Dreadful whirlpools will smash you to bits before scattering your poor remains to the coast… When the Doryo wormed her way between the reefs, the white men stiffened with fear, kept their eyes closed. When they opened them again, they heard the roaring of the Dragon and howled in pure terror!”

(At this point of the narrative, the children burst out laughing for fear of howling like those men.)

“Imagine,” said the Navigator, “a mountain of dark grey water surging from the sea, its massive ridge undulating on the whole horizon. This liquid snake is formed of a continuous wave, crenulated with silver sprays which line up like a foamy spine. And now assume, O Children, that on its crest runs a lathery furrow, like a torrent of most furious waters where two lips confront each other before swallowing themselves and plunging into abyssal depth.
You can easily understand why our travellers were breathless. Their faces became distorted like the cliffs of Litoine. My companions and I clenched our teeth, not wanting to show our nervousness to the strangers.”

“Like a nut thrown on a rock by a cheeky monkey to
smash it, the hull hit the wall of water. But, against all odds, it was lifted up higher and higher, like a feather caught in the heat, until the Doryo straddled the giant back - the movement had been so rapid that the monster did not have time to throw the passengers overboard – however this did not put their mind to rest, as the frail craft was approaching the jaws of the spurting furrow, its exploding waters roaring like the grinding of giant millstones as big as moons.

The white men closed their eyes again, while I, Captain Papa, stabilized the boat in the middle of the current, precariously balanced on the edge of the demonic lips.

Surely, the Ancients had been inspired to dictate to the Soroakl how to sculpt every square inch of the Sacred Vessel by marking out a net of protective lines.

The boat reached the speed of a falling star. The wind filled our mouths and brought tears to our eyes. The delta disappeared behind us, while on the right, ran the flock of the Sougasse and Entrechausse Islands, now hardly visible from the fast moving turmoil.

A few moments later, the land vanished in the colour of the sea. It seemed we were alone in infinity. Propelled toward an invisible target, the white ones joked in trembling voice. The wind and the thundering waters continued to be strong, but they eventually got used to it - because, dear children, men are timid, and yet become easily accustomed to the most horrifying of experiences.

I, Captain-Papa, observed the movement of the pale moon to locate our position. But all I could determine was that we were zigzagging towards the North-East. Remaining in their seats the passengers shared some dry fish and a few sips of palm water.

We spent the day riding the beast at full gallop. But when the sun began to dive in its aquatic refuge, the current weakened. Was it an illusion or was the water dragon really slowing down? It seemed less prominent on the boundless ocean and the trail of its wake diminished. The Doryo floated back down to the level of calmer waves.
One hour later, as soon as the stars pierced the sapphire silk of the sky, the monster’s spine had dissolved, its sombre swirls engulfed, leaving behind a foamy path that the Noble Boat was following peacefully.

Rathal, the Navigator’s fishing friend, was the first to see the red light in the North. It was not a star, because it was flashing like glow-worms when they are dreaming of love under the morning glories. Overexcited, the white ones aimed their telescope towards the light. But the night all around kept its secrets, and the blinking remained a mystery.

I, Captain Papa, once more took the helm and my partners pulled hard on the oars. We penetrated the high waters. I asked everybody to be very vigilant during the navigation between the corals, and I looked for channels where the sea did not lather.

After crossing surf of crystal waves, the surface became smooth and even in the darkness we could follow the ballet of the mouth fish between the sea weeds and the sponges. I cast the anchor a good distance away from any reef and ordered that we wait for the morning to touch land. It was a wise thing to do, but I had to restrain the roughest White man, whose mood had changed from fear to foolhardiness and who wanted to swim to shore.

Soon we all fell asleep, exhausted from the strain, and deliciously rocked between the starry sky and its reflection on the liquid mirror. If our thoughts could be seen, they would look like the curls of steam coming out of a kettle. Eventually, our thoughts calmed and flew off on the wings of fanciful birds, higher and higher in the nimbus of dreams.”

At dawn, Rathal respectfully shook the Navigator’s shoulder to wake him up.

“Captain-Papa, he whispered, look! Look!”

“I raised myself on my elbows; around us pearly sails were twirling. In the rising sun, what looked like brown skinned children with curly blond hair were briskly operating light floaters with rigid sails.

Silently, they flew toward the Doryo, then span around in the opposite direction, some to the open sea and others to the curved beach, a few cable lengths away.
Tall trees separated the golden beach from gentle hills. In the backgrounds fluffy clouds flecked over higher peaks.
We had reached the shores of a vast island.
To the West, vague heights opalescent or pink depending on the orientation of their slopes signalled other islands: it was an archipelago.”

Tabiraho’s ancestor called the youth who were bouncing around, holding the mast of their tiny boats. The sail seemed to be made of a bard eboise leaf in the shape of a palm. Only one of them turned his head but then quickly resumed his frolicking, without answering. The others, captured by their game, remained indifferent.

The roughest White thought it a good idea to fire in the air. The blast had no effect on the human flying fish, but it echoed from hill to hill, setting off a flight of egrets. If they expected to arrive discreetly, they had failed! Infuriated, the white master with the burning eyes gave his companion a thrashing which he took placidly. But this time, the altercation attracted the attention of the aquatic dancers. Some looked at the newcomers; one of them lost his balance capsized close to the Doryo. Looking lost, he stared at the men and Captain Papa had the eerie feeling that his smooth face shrivelled like the muzzle of an old seal.
The youth caught his board, heaved himself back on, and then he whistled to alert his companions. In an instant, the group reassembled and sailed off. After a signal they all headed for North Cape and disappeared behind a rock face.

The Indians agreed that a contact had been established with the local population. But what was the meaning of this total lack of interest, followed by this frantic escape?

“They got scared by the quarrel,” suggested old Rathal. “But they had seen us before the thinnest White who appears to be the Boss beat up his friend, the Brute. Because they were skilfully avoiding us...”

“Boss and Brute… I think these names suit them well,” said Sandhal.

“Anyway,” said Rathal, “the dancing kids did not see the White ones before their fight, and for them we were like birds on a branch.”

“Strange people, indeed” said Captain Papa. The fleeting but horrifying metamorphosis of the boy into an old sea creature had left him stunned.

While the Soroakl speculated, the White were consulting their map, trying to find out if the shore line fitted the drawing. The young Boss held the precious piece of leather and showed Captain Papa that the biggest island located in the middle of the archipelago, had a vast bay on its southern coast.

All around reefs were indicated by silver harrows pointing through blue wavelets. It imitated what Captain Papa had seen in the shadowy light, the night before. He wondered if he would be able to safely cross these dangerous waters again.
Another detail on the map attracted his attention. Just to the North of the long beach over the rocks –represented as small cubes - a house had been drawn. He drummed his finger on the spot:
-I think we are on this island. Maybe we could reach this settlement, taking a lot of precautions.

Boss understood the suggestion made by the Indian and agreed with him. Brute immediately followed suit.

Captain-Papa gave orders. They would camouflage the boat under palms and walk toward the settlement, where the Indians would leave their passengers if the place was safe enough.

They ran the Doryo aground and hauled it on the sand. After hiding it between huge roots, they carried arms and bags and penetrated under the shelter of the bush.




Pierre Boucquard was lulled, but a part of his brain could not stop producing question marks.
From what he knew of the Caribbean, this belt of jewel islands around the waist of that Great Lady America, at least a hundred pieces of land emerging from the ocean could correspond to the amazing tale. Only the impressive description of the giant current left him puzzled. Was it due to a lyrical exaggeration of one of these enormous waves that sometimes devastate the coasts after the storm surge of a powerful hurricane? Or…?

A trail was winding up toward a pass. Captain Papa pushed on, advising the white ones to be prudent. Stealthy and agile as a hunting ocelot, Sandhal took the lead, quivering at each noise. On reaching the ridge, he dared a look down the other side, relaxed and signed to his companions to join him. Beyond the crest, jutting into the sea on the left, the beach was bordered with jagged garnet cliffs covered with long, seemingly hairy slopes and carved out with a series of creeks with pristine waters. Above one of them a village of multicoloured houses with green tiled roofs, was hanging like a nest in a balizier. The dwellings, strung off like beads on a rosary, formed lanes which joined into an avenue that extended into the sea by means of a wooden landing stage. A strange building towered above; an oak turret covered with a copper dome and topped with silver globes of diminishing size piled on top of each other, the last and smallest of them like the point of a needle piercing the sky.

No sign of life, except for the faint toll of an unseen bell. If the house on the map truly represented the village, the geographer had not indicated any danger in the area. Elsewhere on the map he had conspicuously marked risks; there, a man, his arms raised, was swallowed into quicksand; another, stiffened in a scream, was sinking in burning red lava; in the middle of the forest ferocious beasts were crunching human skulls and bones; elsewhere, in many places, muskets fired bursts of flame. To say nothing of the nooses hanging from dead trees which held very great significance for the Soroakl who, in the past, used to practice sacred hangings. From the look of it, fishermen should be in the port, and could warn the two white travellers of the possible dangers they might have to face.

The men found a steep path above the gorge. On both sides, small trees spiked with bulbs, trailed hairy garlands covered with bright purple hair. A heady blend of perfumes wrapped itself around them. They arrived at the village gate, a brick arch sealed by iron doors; Captain Papa moved forward and looked for a way to announce them: a bell, a knocker, or maybe a handle. But the doors were smooth and no arrow slits indicated any sign of surveillance from the top of the bastions.

The Indian knocked his staff on the surface. The sound resonated for a long time but the echo was not answered, not a movement to be seen. He tried pushing the doors without success and immediately, Brute, the massive one, came to his aid, thumping his enormous fist on the metal. All he gained from that was a slap from his nervous companion and Chief who poured out a stream of abuse. Once again, the commotion had an amazing power: the doors creaked and two chubby hands appeared, followed by the pudgy body of a character with moustache and curly grey hair partly hidden by a black fur hat.

“What is it now?” said the sleepy man who was wearing baggy pants and pointed shoes.
“I cannot meditate in peace! Phtil’s kids were just keeping a hell of a noise, and now, by the Great Sorceress! you’re taking my door for a drum!”
“Sorry to disturb you, Noble One,” said Captain Papa in the language of the islands, “we did not mean to disturb your rest.”
“Well, no harm done!”
The fellow took a pipe out of his pocket and pushed it in his mouth, well hidden under his thick moustache. He turned his beady eyes to the group and scrutinized them without batting an eye lid.

“So, what can I do for you, august Outsiders?”

Captain Papa explained who were the Soroakl, where they came from, and the mission that the White ones had entrusted them. The man lit his bufard with his tow lighter.
“As for me, I am Pilco, the Gatekeeper of the city. If I understood you well, Guide man, you wish to know if these two men I see could reside safely here before continuing on their journey… at their own risks.”
“Perfectly understood, Dear Sir!”
“Well, you are safe inside our walls, where our police are well organized. But beware at dusk, strange creatures inhabit the undergrowth. I give you only one chance out of a thousand to escape one of these deathly encounters.”
Still smiling to the Keeper, Captain-Papa noticed that shadows moving on top of the ramparts were coming closer above the newcomers. They were two men, armed with crossbows. Their moon shaped helmets resembled the ones worn by the Spanish conquistadores; but their ageless uniforms would not hamper their movements, should they decide to shoot the visitors like peccaries.

Captain Papa reviewed his opinion on the harmless Pilco and, standing ready to alert his companions, increased his obsequiousness.
“I thank you so much for this information. Is it too much to ask to spend the night sheltered inside your welcoming walls?”
The stout moustached man rolled his eyes.
“I have no objection to you staying in the village for as long as you wish. However you should look for a room at the Pious Sailor’s Inn.”
“We are ready to pay the price.”
“So, I’ll take you there,” said Pilco “It is on the old harbour and, he added with a knowing eye, we can talk over a glass of annelle. The landlady, Ouinia, keeps an excellent one in her cellar.”

The gate keeper signalled imperceptibly to the sentries who retreated silently and disappeared behind the stonework.
“This world looks very much like the world of the white ones,” remarked Rathal, “we won’t need to stay very long.”
“I am not so sure” said Captain Papa, remembering the Brazilian towns he had visited before. “There is something odd in the air.”
“What do you mean?” asked Sandhal “I cannot feel anything.”
“The spirits of time seem to be sleeping around.”
“You have come here before, Captain Papa?”
“No. But believe me; this world is like a bird frozen in stone. Nothing has changed for moons.”

Later, on the pier in front of the Pious Sailor’s Inn, the strangers sat around a little table, put up for them by a young plump woman wearing a dress and an Indian scarf.
Over their heads, a wooden sign representing a ship’s boy kneeling on a crow’s nest was swaying in the breeze. His eyes closed, he was praying to escape from the malicious mermaid offering her lavish breast to him.

While Ouinia Champon was preparing their order, Pilco told them that she was a widow, her husband having vanished at sea, three years before. The ample mulatto managed this popular hang-out with a firm hand, thanks to the cinnamon and ebony girls residing upstairs when they were not otherwise engaged in the rooms at the back in the garden.
Thanks to her friendly but inflexible disposition, Ouinia could calm tempers before violent brawls broke out, although she sometimes required the strong pair of arms of her porter friends. A concoction of hibiscus, annelle and other secret ingredients generously offered, mollified the angriest and lulled the fieriest.

Ouinia brought a tray of fresh glossules, lumps of bigroual cheese, a basket of green corn bread and, on her tray, like a mother hen hatching her brood, a long necked carafe full of annelle and a clutch of drinking glasses that she set on the table and filled to the brim with the sparkly green beverage .

A motley assembly, most of them idle sailors surrounded the newcomers.
“Not many Indians here,” noted Sandhal.
“but a few Mulattos,” continued Rathal.
At the public demand, Captain Papa talked about the Soroakl, describing their lives on the bank of the River. Afterwards he asked Pilco for some information about the Island where the rambling currents had taken them.
The gate Keeper complied without hesitation. They were in Guama Archipelago, on an Island called Maighty, either because it was the biggest, or because it was in the shape of a shield, or maybe for both reasons. The village was named Halfway, translation of Medagawere, the ancient designation dating from the Charbiniot Empire. The Charbiniots having been driven away by the Phrisogeois, the original place names had been kept or sometimes translated. The village had once been a stop-over port of call between two of the most important towns. Was it Sufferitude and BottleBottom? But history and time had blown them into oblivion.

The young one unrolled his precious leather map. He cried with joy when he heard the word “Halfway” and showed Captain Papa a row of sloping arabesques that he could not decipher. But he understood that they were the transcription of the name. Captain Papa asked Boss to pronounce aloud the other names shown on the map. He turned to Pilco and asked him to listen carefully.

“Long-wor,” he said, following with his finger the golden cursive scripts in the middle of the Ocean, engraved with dark waves. Pilco nodded and emptied his glass.
“Oh yes, he said with emotion, a beautiful archipelago with its seven wonderful islands.”
He sighed through his foamy mustache.
“It is said that Guama used to be called Cibolla and that treasures were hidden there on every island. Many lusted for them but died in poverty. Petrified skeletons are found clinging onto pickaxes or gold washing sieves. Luckily, this lunacy stopped a long time ago.”
He looked at the strangers with round eyes, too boastful to be stupid. But no one picked up the message implied. He poured himself another annelle and quietly waited for more questions.

“Half-Way” read the young man, and Pilco nodded again.
“Yes, right here, this pretty and peaceful town welcoming you today.”
“Dra-co…”
The gate keeper almost choked.
“Draco? You don’t mean to go to this haunt of Zwolles, these horrifying brigands?”, the indignent Pilco retorted.
“Certainly not!” said Captain Papa, “he is only randomly reading the inscriptions on the map.”
Unruffled, Boss continued.
“La-ri-o”…
“That is our sister island, over there to the West! We also call it the “sad island”. I do not know why. It is a land of bare rocks and blackened grass. Its inhabitants quarrel over futility. Apparently a wild woman has recently taken over the leadership.”
Acknowledging the words of Pilco, Boss moved his finger to the South-East.
“Ma-la-mé…”
“Mm,” Pilco sighed with nostalgia. “A round island to the East, a land of gentleness and love; that is where I left my mother and father.”
“Clo-to-ne…”
“Ah,” said Pilco “an interesting island, with an industrious population. The Clotonese believe the world revolves around them. I do not appreciate their arrogance but I must admit that Clotone plays the major role of Capital city. There you will find the castle of the Villacope, the administrator of the whole archipelago. That is where justice is dispensed, in the palace of the Conch. There is also the Sacred Race Course, and the seat of the Patriarch of the Cercopse forest. To say nothing of the covered market, four times larger than our village! And of course the Great Basin port, where thousands of ships lay at anchor and so many more things! I would like to go there one day; but the ferry from Zigone is beyond my modest income.”
The blond stranger pointed to his chest, then to the map, several times
“What does he mean?” said Pilco, puzzled.
Boss repeated his gesture and Captain Papa thought he understood:
“This young man wants to go to the Capital.”
He pointed his finger on the island named Clotone then pointed to Boss before going back to the map. Boss smiled and nodded his head frantically.
“Yes, that’s what he means!”
“There is a sea link with the Capital from another port in the island, look, right here, to the North.”

Boss assented, whispering some incomprehensible words. Then he showed them another isolated place in the ocean on the map:
“Pe-ri-ache…”
“Ow…” said Pilco, shivering, “that’s a strange island made of steep cliffs and deep forests. The residence of Sorcerers. I would not recommend it, although it is not quite as dangerous as Draco.”
“Soul-a-mede?”
Pilco became dreamy.
“It reminds me of one of my childhood songs: ‘Comin’ back to Soulamede. Bringing pearls to the young maids.’ ” he sang “It is an island dedicated to the cult of the Ancestors and the Dead. But I believe it is more of a legend!”

Pulling his pipe from between his jaws; Captain Papa bent over the map and showed Boss that he wanted to know where Soulamede was precisely located. Boss indicated a rock on the slope of a crescent, far to the North East, like the vanguard of the archipelago. Dotted lines linked it to Clotone.
“Do you know anything about this connection?” he asked.
“Well,” said Pilco, “as Soulamede is located in the fringes most exposed to the winds, I don’t think it is easy to access.
But seamen bring back stories. The area is rough, the trade winds are stormy, and the sea infested with giant Trackard sharks which attack our boats, gobbling them in no time. Our people are brave, but not foolhardy! They prefer the waters of the Channel between Mayghty and Clotone; well stocked with fish before the Dysme Crossing, or further to the South, towards Malamé.”

Brute, who was swinging sluggishly in his chair, chose this moment to collapse in a crash of wood and straw. To avoid a scandal, Captain Papa held Boss arm. The landlady rushed back and scolded a sheepish Brute who was standing there, holding the back of the shattered chair. The giant narrowed his eyes, blinking with exhaustion. She guided him like a circus bear towards the inn, where she opened an empty room for him.

She pushed him on the poster bed. The human mass collapsed; his feet sticking out by a good length.
Dame Ouinia, full of concern, removed his boots, and abandoned him discreetly to his lot.

Meanwhile, Pilco and the Halfwayers were fascinated by Boss, this vivid and amazing stranger. The young master was sucking in the information. Communicating through gestures and words, he was shamelessly borrowing from various known languages. Grasping the expressions of the local tongue, he was learning at incredible speed. On the other hand, he was turning a deaf ear to any question concerning him directly.

“An escaped convict? An aristocrat condemned in his own country?” sitting at the next table, one of the sailors whispered venomously to another. Boss, who appeared to understand the words, gave him a burning gaze, causing him to retreat behind his mug of annelle. Later on, during an argument about Draco’s climate, the man slipped away, snarling curses between his teeth. Sandhal noticed but kept to himself the eerie feeling that this sneaky departure had upon him.

The conversation on the islands – real or imaginary – stretched on, and soon, forgetting that the newcomers were foreigners, they broke into a strange cantilene song with endless verses and a haunting chorus.

The Indians, unphased, marked the beat with their heads. Boss had removed his map from the sputters of annelle and was listening attentively, his eyes half closed. From time to time, he sketched and took notes on the little notebook which never left him. Later that night, slightly drunk, he joined his friend and fell asleep in a rocking chair without taking off his boots. The Soroakl hung their hammocks on the posts of the Inn’s veranda. The sea breeze alone continued the conversation, answering the squeaking of the Pious Sailor sign.




°

° °



Around eight o’clock the following morning, Pilco went to wake up the Indians, only to discover that they had been up from the crack of dawn. He was accompanied by a short man with a beard shaped like a horseshoe and hair like frizzy straw under a thread-bare round cap like the one worn by the gate keeper. He was wearing a tatty old leather jacket, and blue breeches with numerous pockets. His freckled face was notable for the many lines crossing his forehead, as if permanently worried.

“Captain-Papa Sir,” said Pilco ceremoniously, “I’m pleased to introduce to you Mister Pimlic, who comes from the castle. He brings a message from the Lord for the travellers. He can speak their tongue.”
Lowering his voice, he added “We must penetrate the enigma of their identity, discover their motivations and their goals; the whole town is losing itself in conjecture about them. What motivated these distinguished characters to brave the mysteries of the universe to be washed up on the shores of our tiny world? We are dying to know more!”

Captain-Papa answered his whispers with a placid smile that left Pilco feeling ill-at-ease. He turned his back and addressed Dame Ouinia.
“Quick, quick! Announce us to your guests”.

But the white men did not respond to her heavy knocks on their door. They must have reached a state of extreme lethargy after their frightening ride on the Dragon, the vapours of annelle and the long discussions of the night.

She knocked again and again, and the bedroom door finally opened on Boss, in a shirt, stretching like a wild cat in the rising sun.
“What is all this racket about?” he questioned with a coated tongue, before yawning his head off. Nobody dared to speak, but Pilco pushed the little man in front of him, forcing him to become the center of Boss’ blurred vision.
“Forgive me for waking you up,” mumbled Pimlic, “I am the Gardener, at the service of Halfway’s Castle. The gate keeper told me about your arrival. I bring news which may interest you…”
“Hmm? They can wait till after our ablutions” answered Boss, closing the door.
Pilco and Pimlic looked at each other.
“This man is tough as the leather of his hose!” sighed Pilco, his spiky grey eyebrows drooping.

“A hard-nosed master,” added Pimlic, “and by God, I know the type. I have one on my back from dawn ’till dusk and back again!”
“Hi, Dame Ouinia, could you take a reviving breakfast to the Gentlemen, with fresh Jac, and some genipa liquor.”

“The Lord is paying, of course” he added, dropping a few dull coins on the polished counter.

The Mulatto bent over the scented wood hatch, where three pairs of mischievious eyes were blinking in the half light.
“Go on, boys, get to work. Do you hear?”
Ouinia was not really exploiting the fishermen’s sons of Cape Charbin, except for dish washing, for which she was ruthless.

Boss and Brute finally came out of their den, dressed from head to toe in rich costumes covered with silver buckles.
“Well,” said Boss, “now I feel in top form. Let’s see what news Mister Gardener is bringing us.”
“Ah,” said Pimlic bowing, “I see, with great pleasure, that your Excellencies seem in good shape after your ordeal with the Dragon. I…”
“Straight to the point, my friend,” said Boss, who then became distracted by a languid beauty swaying up the stairs, her hair cascading in black curls down to her waist.

It transpired that Pimlic came as an ambassador for the Lord of Halfway who had promptly been made aware of the arrival of the unusual travellers and requested them to pay him a visit at his Residence in the middle of the woods above the city.

“As soon as possible”, insisted Pimlic.

Boss did not like to be pushed, but he assented to accept the lord’s invitation later that morning, after first getting better acquainted with the small town. Captain-Papa decided to escort his clients to the town and then to the castle, because he feared that their natural arrogance might trigger some abuse from the authorities who might claim a toll, or worse throw them in jail without trial. He discreetly distributed to his fellow countrymen the little poisoned arrows dipped in “frog venom” - not the mortal ones, but the paralyzing ones - which would perhaps come in handy…

“But if the local Prince puts them in the nick, we would be free of them,” whispered Sandhal.

“Come on, little brother,” croaked Rathal scandalized, “the Soroakl do not commit such loathsome deeds.”
“I was just teasing, Big brother,” said his impish companion.

°
° °


Halfway was lazily awakening. The group strolled through the early morning streets, still silent but for the calls of the Matutin birds, flitting from one gable to the next.
It was market day and Pilco had abandoned the strangers to attend to some business at the gates of the village. Merchants were bartering goods for a spot on the high street. His two skinny sentries were just about able to avoid any argument with the recalcitrants.


The Indians sat down on the cool stones to take in the scene; the unusual things, the people and their goings on, all of them new to the Soroakl.

“Who are these victuals for?” Rathal asked a merchant with a pleasant face.
“Two thirds of it will be sold and consumed by citizens and their families; the rest is given away to the poor and the mad people. But we only have one poor person, who also happens to be mad, which somewhat simplifies the problem.”
“How can one person eat so much fish and game, consume so many fruits and mushrooms, and drink so much wine!” exclaimed Sandhal surprised. The merchant had to admit that there was a mystery right there.
“Old Ribodol always takes his share, but no one knows what he does with it. Some people say that he is feeding a huge fish in an underwater grotto, known by him alone and apparently his only friend. By the way, sweet stranger, would you be interested by one of these wonderful lamps?
Seeing that you are already shining inside, I will sell it to you for two Fufes. And for three, I'll add a roll of fresh leaves and a new flint.”

“Mister,” said Sandhal, “the lamp doesn’t interest me, but the locket there on your hairy chest is quite intriguing. What does it represent, great vendor?”
The merchant blinked imperceptibly.
“The impertinence! It belonged to my late wife; this jewel is not for sale. On the other hand, noble and shrewd savage, one of my lamps…”

But Sandhal had spotted a dense group of maidens of a milky complexion, draped in silky tunics. In a flash, the young Indian fell in love with one after the other…He rushed to attract the attention of the third one, but the beauty did not even deign to turn her curly eyelashes to him. She cleverly avoided the irksome individual and joined her friends in the shade of the wash-house where they disappeared. Rathal held his mesmerised companion’s arm to prevent him from following them. Later, Pilco rolled his eyes wildly when Sandhal told him about his dazzled feeling.
“You fool! They are novices of the Magde order! If their superiors, who are seldom very far, had even suspected your lustful thoughts, you would already be reduced to ashes! Or worse, there would be another Thrombe on Maighty.”
“A Thrombe? What on earth is that?”
Pilco, obviously ill-at-ease, was trying to make sure that no one had heard the conversation. Then, he continued between his teeth.
“There are things that we do not speak about, my friend!”
And he turned his back to him chewing on his moustache.
Shutters were opening everywhere on the roughcast of the houses which lined the hillside like cases upon the shelves of a storeroom. Toddlers whirled around the doorsteps between shade and sunlight. Close to the port, at the corner of a square paved with marble, wealthy men gathered who, after vehement discussion, retreated under the arcades to conclude their deal and shake on it. The day star was reducing the shadows of the shop signs. In the buzy streets, the stomp of booted feet, the clanging of greaves, the scraping of breastplates and sheathes, reminded the friends that the town also sheltered a less peaceful kind of a population: the town teemed with people of all descriptions, skinny wretches, craggy seafarers, lost soldiers and vicious armed officers, all of them ready to manhandle or rob the unfortunate passer-by at the first occasion.

After Boss changed a few gold coins in local currency the company kept close watch on him but nobody tried to follow them. Lingering behind, Rathal witnessed a furtive scene which left him perplexed. In a side street, numerous figures wrapped in black were moving close together walking with short hurried steps, flanked by attentive helmeted soldiers who glared left and right in vigilant suspicion. These guards directed the hooded figures towards the door of a warehouse and guided them inside. Men or women? It was impossible to tell, but they complied mechanically as if in a stupor.

“That's odd!” thought Rathal, “They walk like the Ancients after drinking too much distilled blave. If they fall, they will be pulverized like desiccated mummies!”

If he had mentioned this anecdote to his companions, they would have been able to solve an important puzzle of their adventures on Guama, but at the time Rathal was astonished by everything he saw and did not pay it any particular attention.

It was almost midday when Boss went back to the town gate for Pilco to give him directions to the Lord’s Castle. Waving his hands as he spoke, the gate keeper pointed to the steep mountains, touring over the town to the East. That was the way.
The white man led the way to the big postern, followed -willingly or grudgingly - by the rest of the group. Captain Papa felt anxious when the finely worked gates closed behind them, while, in front of them, the dense rustling forest opened. But just as the panels were about to lock themselves behind them, a man wrapped in a frayed frock edged his way out, pushing a hairy animal in front of him, its loaded bags giving off a stench of salt fish. He passed the group, casting sly looks around, his long scrawny arms clutching his skeletal body as if to hide it. With a jerky gait, he disappeared on a trail going down to the sea.

“That must be Ribodol”, said old Rathal.
“Yes,” replied Sandhal, “you are surely right, my uncle.”
He bent over to pick up an object in the dust.
“What did you find?” said Captain Papa softly. “I think that Ribodol dropped it…”
He showed him a grey metal ring, matt in texture, inset with a purple stone in which the silhouette of a scarab seemed frozen.
“A kind of amber,” remarked Captain Papa. He decided to let Sandhal keep his find.



II. The Lord of Halfway

What was this hybrid place? At times, one thought of a remote European colony, but almost immediately the wandering mind imagined ancient trading posts, or medieval cities. From the island rose the flavour of a dormant freebooters' republic, but some details did not fit with any of these descriptions. The people of Guama were related to the people of the West Indies, but they seemed to have fallen from a star. Their complexion –a detail some find important-was indefinable, sometimes ivory, sometimes almost blue, sometimes cinnamon or cocoa. But the most surprising, was that on many of them, the variation in shades and colours could be seen during the course of a day on the same person, varying from morning to night. Their mood too, seemed to influence their hue, and for them to hide their feelings was a challenge.
Where on earth had the travellers landed? And when? Was the calmness of their hosts’ welcome a pure cover? Would not darker intentions be revealed behind their overfriendly attitude?
To these questions which seemed to preoccupy the Whites were added Captain Papa’s own concerns which he hid behind his impassive mask. What was the blond one looking for? Discovery of a new land? A treasure maybe? The pure kick of risk taking? Something more? How far would he drag his companions?

At the bottom of the valley rising in spikes towards high plateaux, the residence of the Lord of Halfway was concealed to the gaze of the citizens. First, the travellers had to cross a narrow swamp covered with black Cypress retaining the sea moisture and laced with Goddess threads . Hearing the men coming on the elevated track, a few alligators were barking loudly. Then followed a wide path bordered with the parasol-shaped foliage of the gigantic Kapok trees that continued towards a meadow where a cubic Castle could be discovered flanked by four towers, slightly askew. A low, square wall surrounded the castle making it look like a dwarfish fortress. Many curse-laden banyan trees crowned this wall, throwing their aerial roots like languid octopi and erotomaniac marshmallow strips of crawling vines clung to the stones. This voluptuous vegetation had scarcely spared the majestic doors, swallowing the heraldic lions above, and stiffening in its arms the last rusty door that was being lazily devoured over the years.

Informed by his gardener Pimlic, the Lord came out to meet the newcomers. He was a tall, skinny man with a square jaw and long, straight black hair which fell upon the shoulders of his old leather shirt patinated by constant use.
The Lord embraced Boss rather coldly, addressed him in his own language and led him to the front steps. The Indians followed the move, catching a few words of the exchange between the two men.
Pimlic, his forehead more wrinkled than ever, caught up with Sandhal who was starting to explore the vegetable garden, amazed by such beautiful cucumbules, boleti, angel trumpets, giant salvia and by many more extraordinary species.
“Please, come out of there” whispered Pimlic, “I do not want any of the young innocent shoots growing on the edge to be trampled upon!”
Pimlic's passion went first to the full and fleshy flowers of the region: fragile Passiflora of all shades of red; cannonballs exploding in scarlet and golden bubbles; Jade lianas; balisiers pointing out with their marvellous fingers; fluffy cat-tails; frangipane helix; battalions of bombax; obscene anthuriums presenting their scaly tongues; a flickering fanfare of Bougainvillea; porcelain roses; pomegranate flowers smoothing out and many more besides.
Sandhal belonged to a long line of herbalists, his mother Managora had raised him in the intimacy of useful and dangerous plants and in time the dear Pimlic learned to respect the young Indian for his knowledge of medicinal plants.
The company entered a dark and cool vestibule and penetrated in the western reception room with painted beams and incredibly high windows. Here and there iron candelabra were fixed to the walls. They displayed escutcheons with seven jewels, most probably symbolising the seven islands of Guama.

Captain Papa was used to living in the simplicity of the forest, but he had visited many colonial cities such as the splendid Managua or Tocaia Grande. He noticed the absence of furniture but for a few odd chairs and a rustic sideboard pushed in a corner. On the terrace, opened to the mountain prolonging the façade, the table was laid in the shade of an arbour. Mouth-watering dishes where waiting for the guests, since although he was poor, the Lord wanted to honour them. During the meal, washed down with an old brown Annelle, Captain Papa sat next to Pimlic in order to follow the Masters’ conversation. The Lord answered to the bombastic name of Phial of Atow de Parinoflee. He poured forth his life's misfortunes and soon they found out everything about him.

One night, friendly clients at the Pious Sailor had invited him to play and out of boredom, for a few symbolic Fufes, he accepted. Later on, he had realised that the professional cheaters did not get up to renew their chew of tobacco, but that they had disappeared after fleecing his gullible lordship. Back in the castle, fufeless, he was to lose the rest of his fortune and his wife, Misigraine of Sisipare, a noble dame of Clotonese ascendancy. After a dreadful scene, she packed her bags, took valets and housekeepers, and slammed the door behind her. Lord Phial followed the noble and irascible woman all the way to the wharf, where she boarded under escort and disappeared in the belly of the galleon. The insulted Lord summoned the galleon’s captain in the port of Halfway to bring Misigraine and her furniture back home. The captain, apparently unmoved, dispatched three of his seamen to teach the Lord a lesson. They had cause to regret it! A serious fighter, he wrestled them with his bare hands, breaking their cutlasses and kicking them all the way back to their boat. However, although he had greatly enjoyed bashing them around, he could not take the risk of seeing his city bombarded. Not wanting to spark off a diplomatic incident beyond repair, he tried nothing else to stop the captain from sailing away across the seas to the West returning his precious passenger to her father.

One part of him was enraged by the departure of his wife and his new discomfort, but the other part was relieved of a cantankerous and probably sterile woman (although Phial admitted that he had not made any great efforts to obtain a heir from her). He also had to confess that he courted the women of the land; he had a soft spot for the tavern keeper Ouinia who was a childhood friend and, happily for them both, a widow, as a jealous husband waiting for him in the bush with a Scrape Shooter would not have been deterred by his nobility nor moved to give him any greater opportunity to show his bravery.

The castle had been thoroughly cleaned of its contents, even the clock and its doily. Kicking the walls was undignified and useless, so Phial took refuge in the canopy bed and stayed there for a whole week refusing to see anybody but his faithful Pimlic. The gardener woke him up with Arabian Jasmine and Chiroine water compresses “to be applied on the eyes for brain rejuvenation” as he stated. He could have been right, for on the morning of the seventh day Phial woke up in such a good mood (he had massacred Misigraine’s family in his dreams) that he jumped out of bed, asked for his epiarque (a crossbow) and razor bolts to go and hunt the brenèle. A rejoicing Pimlic brought the weapon, advising him to take his period of convalescence easy.

“Sick? Me?” boasted Phial as he mounted Taradelle, his tawny mare, crossed the cocoa plantation and headed for the woods. He rode until night and came back with an empty bag, exhausted but blissfully happy, holding his mare by the halter, steaming and quivering despite her legendary sturdiness.
Phial retreated into a wilder state every passing year and perfected his hunting skills. He defied the foul smelling beasts of Mount Wino’s slopes, roaming sometimes ten days away from home. Although he could survive comfortably from his game, Pimlic’s vegetable garden, the few animals he raised including dwarf goats, Ardilonne hens and their voluminous eggs, Phial resented what he saw as his extreme poverty. He did not own a Fufe (the Clotonese currency also used in Maighty in spite of the official upholding of the Liard).
He indulged himself and sent back to its legitimate owner Misigraine a gold and platinum rattle with little silver bells and mother-of-pearl handle. To tell the truth the childish object repelled him, but his wife cherished it and she’d rather sleep with it than with her husband. It was amazing that she had left it behind. He could probably have sold it for a good weight of lead coins, but he made it a point of honour to return it to her. Anyway, should he remake his fortune, he swore that he would stop drinking, gambling and fighting like a ruffian in the streets of Halfway. Although killing a blockhead every now and then helped him maintain his reputation and keep his precarious position at the service of the Governor.

In the course of the conversation, the travellers found out that the true authority of the Island was Governor Paraday Principus Mungabor, general delegate of the Republic of Clotone, who lived in his far away palace of Trigone on the North Coast. Although he seldom interfered in local affairs, Governor Mungabor kept in touch with even the most trivial of events and every time he summoned Phial and the other country squires – once or twice a year – for friendly but compulsory banquets he never failed to remind them of this subtle and constant supervision.
“Now, you know everything about my trials and tribulations,” said the Lord thoughtfully, shaking his head and straightening up his powerful torso.
“But I have bothered you enough, and I am neglecting my duty as a host! Of course, you will sleep here tonight. Pimlic has prepared the green bedroom, the only one that was not ransacked by Misigraine”.
“As for your escort”, added the gentleman pointing at the Indians, “camp beds have been set for them in the library.
“We do not want to abuse your hospitality,” said Boss.
“You are not abusing anything. I wish to converse with you longer. Perhaps we have some interests in common. We could exchange goods and ideas. Because, you see, I am ready to do anything to alleviate this boredom and loneliness.”

Phial of Atoy de Parinoflee rose with dignity and invited Boss to follow him in the reception hall with its blistered wooden panels. The dampness was tempered by a blazing fire of dry agra. The group of Indians followed, hanging on to every word of Pimlic’s translation.
“By the way, dear stranger,” said the noble man, “to what do we owe the honour of your visit? Which force pushed you to cross the formidable dangers which separate Overworld from our little archipelago? Are you trying to flee from a mortal threat, like so many sailors who end up on our shores?”

Boss did not answer right away. His eyes riveted to the flames, he held back mixed emotions. After a while, he spoke softly:
“Dear host, I have to admit that the discovery of your world is a wonderful surprise. I have been wanting and waiting to make this trip for some time and now, finally, this voyage has been possible thanks to our guides, the Kings of the sea. However, I can’t really explain what I am looking for as it is not quite clear, even to me, and I will need time to expand on my true grounds. Maybe I’ll be able to answer this question later, in other circumstances.”
He sighed and continued:
“First of all, I would like to go to Clotone, From Pilco, the gate-keeper of the city I heard that it is the Capital Island of the Archipelago.”
“Indeed,” nodded Phial.
“I believe that I can meet some scholars there who could help me with my research.”
“Clotone? But that’s a fantastic idea, dear stranger! You will encounter there everything you wish for, from the sublime to the most dangerous. This project, I must say, awakens in me a desire for travel…”
Stunned by these words, Pimlic dropped the forks and knives which clattered on the stone.
“Yes,” continued Phial, “I wonder if I should not toy with the idea of accompanying you to Clotone. Most of all,” he added, “as you might need a guide to go through the Jungle of Maighty.”
“The pleasure will be ours,” said Boss pushing his boots in the charred branches and the ashes.
“For me too! A breath of fresh air at last!”
“But you were hunting yesterday!” exploded Pimlic, “I haven’t even had time to clean your crossbow yet!”
“Keep quiet, you Booa! Don’t drive me crazy!” screamed Phial who calmed down immediately and smiled at Boss.
“Yes, the more I think about it and the more the idea appeals to me. Free, at last! No more castle! No more grumpy valet! Just adventure, game, cool water and a starry sky for our canopy!”

Having shown such an enthusiasm for a different life, Phial did not hide from his guests that he was expecting some financial support; if only to repair the roof of one of the towers which was sinking. Without further ado, Boss asked him how much he would charge to take them to the wharf of Zigone, on the other side of the island, because he wanted to reach Clotone as quickly as possible.
“How much do you have in your purse?” the Lord came back at him immediately, in a detached tone of voice.
Boss, rather surprised, protested softly, “Dear Sir, you cannot estimate your price according to what we have, but according to the value of the task in your vicinity. It would certainly be a fairer method instead of fleecing us. Don’t you think?”
Unshaken, the other one went on:
“Sir, I see I have offended you. However you should not believe that my intention is to cheat or harm you. I have no idea as to what I can get from you. I have never traded my knowledge of the forest before. I am only asking you about your fortune so as not to abuse you, but to get an idea of what I can ask for, without stripping you off the resources for your trips. Let me add,” he said, his eyes reduced to slits, “that if I were a highway man, I wouldn’t ask you that question.”
“Really?”
“Of course not. I would take your money and your life without blinking!”
“We’ll see about that!”
At that point, Captain-Papa noticed that their host, who up to that time had a skin colour softly fluctuating from a sunny beige to a well polished copper, had changed to a faster fluttering ashy grey turning to a burnt brick hue that, if one could judge such a thing from observing his face and hands alone, travelled along his body.
Although not keen at the prospect of this exhausting trip, Pimlic – oscillating between a yellow and a greenish shade – backed up the validity of his master’s proposal and, noting that the Lord’s harsh manner could make the transaction fail, quickly spoke:
“Noble stranger, please excuse Signour Phial’s ways, they are only due to solitude and the provincial life-style of our small town. I can however bear witness to his pure intentions. Listen, usually, my master brings back from his hunting enough to feed us for a fortnight and clothe us for several months. If I had to buy the equivalent in the general store of Halfway, or even from the fur traders in the open market on Fridays (Thecuman), I would, at the lowest estimate, relieve myself of fifteen thousand Liards, that is four hundred Clotonese Fufes. Do you agree Signour Phial?”
The Lord fully agreed and totally turned back to his original pastel shade.
“But,” continued the gardener, now stabilized in pink, “we won’t only have to sustain the lives of two coarse men, but of six more, some of them accustomed to delicacies.”
“If you are talking about us,” interjected Boss, “you are exaggerating, we eat like the others. Furthermore, the Soroakl’s presence might not be necessary anymore if you accompany us. That would make three men less.”
“I’ll stop you there, said Phial. The Soroakl can be useful for hunting and fishing especially in the marshes of the West. Their skills will allow us to move faster. Moreover the region is less than secure and the rumour spreading of two rich white men travelling might make it more dangerous.”
“Mm. This could convince us to stay with our clients,” suggested Captain Papa, searching for confirmation from his partners. Seeing the glint in Sandhal’s eye and an amused gleam in Rathal’s, making him look twenty years younger, he did not hesitate.
“As the danger is real, our duty commands that we stay with you, at least to cross the island.”
“Thank you my friends,” said Boss, “I did not expect anything less from you.”
“Good,” heaved Pimlic, “the problem is solved. We need two thousands four hundred good Fufes of Guama, or ninety thousands Liards of Maighty. I believe that makes twenty of those gold coins bearing the seal of the eagle which are the currency in your world.”
A silence followed, broken by Brute’s loud mastication of the Chniarque’s bones that he was chewing.
Finally, Boss held his hand out to Phial:
“Let’s not argue, I would not dream of worsening your precarious situation. I also have a castle and the north wind blew off its roof last year.”
“So, my friend, you are also a lord?”
“Something of the sort and, to tell the truth, somewhat less fortunate than yourself.” said Boss.
“Enough of this! Call me Phial,” exclaimed the emotional Lord, stretching out a palm as large as a bread board.
“And you, Phial, must call me Augustin,” said Boss kindly, wincing and shaking life back into his crushed hand.
“As for me,” said Brute with a broad smile. “I am John.”

When he heard these words, Pierre Boucquard, still aching with dengue or some other unknown fever suddenly sprang up from the mattress like a jack in a box.
“What did you say? Repeat!” he rudely barked at Tabiraho.
“Repeat what?”
“The names of your two guys, Holy Pit!”
“Oh yes, Augustin and John, if I remember my ancestor’s tale well.”
“But precisely, shouted Pierre with enthusiasm, even if Captain-Papa had not faithfully recorded his trip, these two names could never have been pronounced together! It cannot be just a coincidence!

The old Indian exposed two of his rotten teeth just to show that he remained perplexed by the excessive emotion of his guest. Pierre gave up trying to explain, but he remained now totally convinced that Tabiraho’s tale related the adventures of Augustin Coriac and his friend John Latoile, the two men he had been tracking for months.


° °
°


“The deal being concluded,” resumed Tabiraho, “they left the table.”
Pimlic would show them where to sleep and they all decided to meet the following day to prepare the expedition. But some of them, obviously, were not in a hurry to go to bed.
“Come,” said Phial to Augustin, “I’ll show you my observatory.”
Captain-Papa invited himself and followed the two men up a steep mahogany spiral staircase which led to the top of a turret. The blue stone terrace was not covered with a pointed roof like the three others but with a small dome with a rectangular opening at the top for an astronomical telescope. No such instrument was visible, but smaller telescopes were standing on fine tripods, their objectives pointing towards different capes out to sea.
“If you look through the first telescope on your left, you will be able to see the swirls of the Great Dragon.”
“True,” noted Augustin, “but I thought it had disappeared.”
“Not at all, young man, you were lucky enough to leave it in a zone where it dilutes itself as it mixes with colder waters. But then, it starts again further beyond a sand bank, it gives birth to one of the most frightening whirlpools that exists in our world and probably in yours!”
“Can I see it from here?”
“Look in the second telescope, my Dear.”
After a while, the young white one exclaimed:
“I see it! A true funnel in the middle of a lake of haze! Wow! It must be gigantic if we can see it so large at such a distance!”
“Some eleven marine miles,” said the impassible lord.
Captain-Papa, in his turn, wanted to look in this alien instrument. What he saw there made him shudder in retrospect.
“If we had not landed close to the great beach on your island, we were sailing to a certain death. But, how do you reach those mountainous islands, that line of peaks to the West?”
“Lario and Draco? Well, we hardly ever go there, and never through this area. We avoid the zone of lull where you arrived, for it is impermanent, capricious, and often covered with dangerous fogs. You have to pass through a point located to the North East, facing Lario to the East and Clotone to the West. I must admit that we are rather protected by the great Whirlpool. You see, the people of Periache, Draco and Lario, on the other side of the current, are not exactly what you call peace loving. The violence of the elements that separate us has a good side: we are not threatened by their warlike manoeuvres, their bloody lootings and terrifying deeds.”
“I guess you have some light to bring on the nature of this current, whose size is disproportionate to anything I have seen anywhere else, except maybe by Cape Horn.”
“To tell you the truth, Augustin, I will admit my ignorance in maritime affairs. Although I fought on ships ages ago, I am more of a cavalry man. The earth is my favourite domain, and I leave to the seamen the responsibility to safely direct me when I have to embark, something I don’t really enjoy.”
“But what do people say about the Great Dragon?”
“In the taverns, assumptions are made, each one crazier than the other. I would not advise you to trust any of these stories. The only man who really knew the currents of the archipelago was my Uncle Karool Jion de May - May he rest in peace! He is the one who built the structure where we are standing now. With his bare hands, he created most of the instruments on the terrace.”
“Did this uncle share any information with you?”
“Of Course! He is the one who raised me but he was always very careful before asserting anything. Let us go down now,” nodded the lord of Halfway in a weary voice, “the night is waiting for us.”
Thoughtful, he preceded his guest to the opening at the top of the stairs and stopped.
“I always heard Uncle Karool say that the Great Dragon was the friend of the Great Equilibrium.”
Phial shrugged his shoulders.
“How can I possibly explain to you our whole world in a few words? We have plenty time, Deviljug! We should take a rest. But if you really want to learn more about the mysteries of our currents, I advise you to consult my uncle Karool’s collection of books in the library!”
“I thank you for your offer”, said Augustin, his eyes shining.

In the dark of the night, the three Soroakl, huddled close to each other on mouldy carpets in the central aisle of the castle’s library could not find their sleep. Although they would not admit it, they were a bit scarred by the bronze angels, an eternal frozen smile on their discoloured lips, holding the balusters and supporting the shelving around the room. They were bothered by their greenish faces with enigmatic expression changing in the flickering flames of the candle. The thousands of books, swollen and decomposing, suspected of containing immemorial testimonies of the human spirit, overwhelmed them with a feeling of anxiety.
“Captain-Papa?” whispered Sandhal.
“Yes, young man,” he answered, making an effort to remain calm.
“Do you think that demons dwell in these books, and that these angels are preventing their escape?”
“I don’t know… I believe that the words sleeping on the paper are all but dead. Even if someone were to read them and cause them to awaken, they no longer have any sense of life. Like smoke, their empty spirits will fly away, escape through the windows and the chimneys and become clouds…. and then, pfft… nothing will be left but a faint noise.”
“Ah?”
“You can sleep in peace; they will not wake you up.”
“All right,” said Sandhal, and he fell asleep reassured. Captain Papa alone continued to remain vigilant, looking concerned. He had already rubbed shoulders with bandits capable of killing a man at the first vexation, and human wrecks, victims of cirrhosis capable of dying at the first knock, but he had never met a noble hunter, living in a castle with such a considerable amount of books and a temper as unsettled as the colour of his skin. He was wondering whether their skills at blow gun or bamboo flute shooting would be of any use, should the irascible character loose his temper with the white ones. In case of a rout, the disgrace of the Soroakl would be so great that they would be condemned to eternal roaming, for they would never be able to return home, except to die of shame.


Suddenly, creaks were heard. Antediluvian floorboards still had strength enough to rebel and signaled a presence. Wavering in a red glow, a shadow stretched itself on the emblazoned blankets, in front of a candle carried by a male figure coming out of a small side door. If they had woken up at that moment, his companions would have immediately recognized the man who had shown great interest in the Lord’s books.
Augustin, for it was him, took a walk around the vast room, visibly dissatisfied. He went up the spiral staircase leading to the second flight of shelves, and stopped in front of a case loaded with gigantic volumes, sealed rolls of parchemin, and cardboard boxes full of loose manuscripts. He rested the candle holder on a small table and pulled out a massive In Quarto that he carried in his arms up to a wrought-iron lectern. He blew the dust off and opened at the page saved with a black leather bookmark.
Late into the night, he read, read again, took notes, and copied whole passages and drawings. Captain Papa heard him mumble and at times cry out softly. Could Boss decipher the ancient tongues of the Archipelago? What was he looking for in this jungle of books? And what on earth could he possibly discover in them? So many questions did not stop Tabiraho’s ancestor from falling asleep.



At breakfast in the huge kitchen, they shared the tasks. Augustin and Phial discussed the route. They decided to buy equipments and food for a fortnight. Captain Papa took in charge the storage of the Doryö with a friend of Pilco who owned a private creek. Rathal, accompanied by Sandhal, would buy hunting, fishing and camping materials, and Phial was entrusted with choosing the best arms to kill the bigger game. As far as Pimlic was concerned, he would go to Phtil, the cattle dealers’ quarter to acquire three young and robust mules. Their placidity would be welcomed if they met with a Lycadion. Not that it really was a dangerous beast, but its raucous growls could root you to the spot, and chase off all, human and animals, when they heard it. More than one trapper had lost his equipage, his frightened horses skedaddling away, abandoning their master in the middle of a sea of green.

The Lord’s residence came to life as if by magic, peasants and craftsmen carried there victuals, weapons and tools. The expedition members bustled around between Halfway and the noble abode. Sometimes, idle, Augustin and his enormous companion strolled through the streets, having dinner at the Pious Sailor, or at the White Crocaster, a tavern located in the shade of the defensive towers. They hung about the market, where many objects were exchanged: conches and calabashes, glass floaters used as medicinal phials, dried fishes with wide open jaws, a thousand and one knickknacks platted or threaded with tiny shells, sparkling like precious stones. Augustin and John were only interested in the fresh choulcave or tobacco chews that an old man was offering from a stool. Augustin bought a few pinch, wrapped in wax paper. On the other hand, Rathal, the wise seaman, had to call back Sandhal, filled with wonder at the sight of the bush-doctors’ display :
cachew juice to immediately stop drunkenness ; crushed coucule almonds to harden the male organ exhausted by many struggles; bull-frogs’ throats for burns, chayote seed for a perfect complexion ; dry occras, etc…
He could easily be charmed by any sales-patter.
“Anyway, said Rathal, what would you give in exchange ?
“Ah, my wise uncle”, said Sandhal, “Just see how they are looking at the buckles on our bellies!”
“Yes”, replied a mocking Rathal, “I can just imagine you having to hold your loin-cloth with both hands, when we’ll meet one of these ferocious animals so famous in these parts.”

Phial wished to share with his host some arm drills. Augustin joined him in the combat hall, where they practiced passes to evaluate each other skills. A few unexpected tricks, included a Vincenne thrust, left the lord surprised and were enough to raise their mutual esteem. Out of breath and showing a beautiful lettuce tint, Phial exclaimed :
“What a duellist! No need to cross swords any longer! Come to town with me. Let’s have a farewell drink for the island’s best warriors!”
Not wanting to contradict his host, Augustin asked him if he had advised the population about their voyage. Phial begged him not to worry :
“Anyway, my Dear, Pimlic and your three friends have already given the official details of our project to the whole city. While I am speaking with you, the governor, on the other side of the island, already knows. On the contrary, it is very important that we leave publicly, so that I can insure him of my return.”
“Well”, sighed the young White, “let’s go and drink.”
“Yes”, added John, “let’s hurry up!”


III Wyndoore Forest

The morning of departure came. They met in the kitchen for a tonic drink. Pimlic gave his hunchbacked cousin (followed by his wife and his ragged children) the final instructions to keep the domain in good shape during his absence. Cheerful and excited, they all went to the esplanade where the mules were waiting, tied to their rings. Pimlic and John harnessed the animals to two carts piled up with a mountain of goods. Captain Papa and the Indians helped them, trying not to get too near to the mules for they were unsure of their reactions. Augustin rode the magnificent and very nervous piebald horse that Phial had offered him. He had managed to master riding it in two days, while the Lord of Halfway was satisfied with his old Taradelle, tireless and immortal, according to him.

When they opened the ramparts gates, the sun had not risen above the plateau. At the crossroads, they had to force the horses toward the forest as they seemed to prefer the road going down to the town. The horses stumbled up, their nostrils trembling. The innocent mules, uncomplaining, moved up the uneven stony trail, their bulging muscles carrying their shaky load without effort.

Beyond the meadows, they penetrated under the Agras, tall scaly columns, their vast canopy interlacing their giant hands far above the little men who were working among their roots. The men’s and horses’ steps were muffled by the carpet of large leaves laying at the bottom of the mossy trunks. When the sun played through the dramatic foliage and the falling lianas, the eyes could see far between the boles, in spite of the Fragan bushes growing in their shades like aggressive dwarfs.

In the glades opened by fallen trees sometimes held back by amorous creepers, Purpurils nested taking refuge in the dead eyes of the stumps before the greedy termites would compete for them always in a hurry as they were to turn the wood back to humus and rejuvenate the soil of this ethereal forest.

The ivory beaks stopped hitting the trunks with their rapid hammering, and looked at the intruders; their hoopoe flat with tenseness. As soon as the caravan passed, they resumed their Morse-code conversation through the silent woods.

A big bird pierced the sky, flapping his black wings. It let out an oboe signal, flew around and settled on a low branch, gripping it with its claws. It folded its shiny wings and observed the humans, its head tilted to one side. Around its neck hung a minute, polished, metal cylinder. “A messenger from the Governor”, said Phial.
He held out his hand and the bird jumped on his wrist, letting him remove its light load. Then it took off, massive and elegant, and disappeared above the trees. The Lord unscrewed the metal cap and took out the finely rolled paper.

Augustin saw the face of the petty noble change from pearly grey to crimson salmon, and then return to normal.
“Troubles ahead, Signor Phial?”
“Oh”, grumbled the Lord,” only boring obligations!”
“Do you mean to tell me that we will have to accompany you to pay a visit to the Governor?”
“You guessed right, Safouinvert!” said Phial raising his eyebrows.
Augustin smiled:
“Your governor, informed by his men, is legitimately intrigued by our strange caravan…”
Phial shrugged his shoulders and said morosely:
“Mungabor is concerned by the description of our party. Many a foreigner wandered on the island under his discreet surveillance. Unfortunately, he is after me. He knows I am on my way to Clotone with you. In his mind, I must be going to the Capital to take part in some political plot. We are entering a period of electoral effervescence and Mungabor wants to control the situation. I am sure that he would lecture me and charge me with diverse missions for the Villacopat.”
“What is the Villacopat?”
“Let’s say that he is the highest administrator of the archipelago. Paraday Principus Mungabor, better known as PPM is his representative on Maighty. He is a very distrustful man. Even if I can persuade him that I am coming to town to find a wife, I won’t be able to convince him that it is strictly a private matter. He will want to know more about my design. Because, you see, any alliance between here and Clotone could change the political equilibrium and threaten his position.”
“How come?” inquired John, showing an unexpected interest for politics.
“Well, just imagine that I do want a wife…”
“Which would be your own business, and we would not have anything to say about that,” replied Augustin politely.
“Certainly! But still imagine that I did find a wife among the lady aristocrats of Mainisle.”
“This daring plan befits you”, said Augustin, “although I still do not appreciate the full meaning of it.”
“Can’t you see that through alliance, I would become a member of a very influential power?”
“Oh but of course!” said John, suddenly grasping this obvious fact.
“So, you understand that Mungabor’s position on this Island depends on the trust of Clotone’s political ruling class. He therefore dreads my most intimate project.”

“Without any doubt”, admitted John.
He stung his mule with both spurs, moving ahead of the convoy. Lost in deep thought, he disappeared along the meandering path. The rest of the troop caught up with him as he stopped at the junction, at the foot of the gigantic scaly trunk of a thousand years old Agra.
As John asked right and left for directions, a voice answered in a strong Creole accent:
“Wight for Wyndoore, left for Cape Charbin!”
John gave a start in his saddle, almost squashing his mule under his sizeable rear. She regained her balance, huffing with great indignation. Suddenly, an old man dressed in a mottled tunic with patterns similar to bark stepped out of the tree. John rubbed his eyes. “Hell! Is this a magician?” cried John surprised.
“No”, said Phial, coming behind him, “he is only a shepherd of woolly Alpilons. He remains still to keep an eye on his animals and inevitably merges with the environment.”
“This mimicry is quite efficient” replied Augustin. “I really believed he was stepping out of this huge tree.”
The old man smiled and coughed softly, in a voice overpowered by the continuous habit of sucking Bambol:
“No, Signor, I cannot enter a tree, it is too uncomfortable. But it’s quite true that I wear garments resembling wood.”
“And what is your reason, brave man, for behaving like a chameleon?” asked John with puzzled eyes.
“Because, my Lords, I don’t want to be a prey for the Cwocaster. These big vultures would gobble me up in a gulp. And my poor Mariah would be sad to become a widow at such a young age. That’s why she knits tunics for me and uses woody fibres so that I may be hidden among the trees. Like that, you see?”
The outline of the man faded in the bark behind him, except for the grey patch of his cap, which could have been mistaken for a knurl in the trunk, its peak passing for a mushroom. Only his voice indicated where he was speaking from.
“Quite extraordinary!” said Augustin “Such capacity for disguise!”
For a moment, they could hear the cavernous laughter of the hidden shepherd which eventually died out. Knocking the tree with his metal-tipped stick, the young man made sure that no-one was there. Indeed nothing was there but the gritty armour of dry scales.
“Hey, old man! Come back!” Called Phial.
A faint ironical giggle ran through the bushes.
“No, my Lord! I have to look for a lost animal!
To the wight Wyndoore, to the left Charbin!”
“I already know that, shepherd, but tell us about the dangers of the forest. Can you hear me, shepherd?
“The die is cast! I understand!” said a distant reedy voice, “The die is cast! To the wight, Wyndoore…to the…”
And then, not a peep was heard.
“Strange little man”, said Augustin.
“But very impertinent. After all, he knows I am the one in charge of this place. Solitude turns these shepherds mad.”
“But is he really a shepherd?” asked Pimlic, thinking. “They say that these men-trees are the wandering spirits of our ancestors.”
“Heaven and hell!” said Phial losing his temper and spurring Taradelle on.

The travellers took to the right, climbing a slope of verdegris Chapougnets. On the ledge, the view opened to the north and Mount Wyndoore appeared like a blue tooth behind the hills of Fandarede to the East. To the West, the landscape split between small valleys planted with ginger, barley and little woods of Fragans, some of them reduced to dry lawns by forest fires. Soon, they witnessed the flight of the Sophore-birds, with their glittering breast, and their beak like a pointed mask attached behind their neck by a bow of golden feathers.

For lunch, they settled on the grass, sheltered under sullen Chapougnets, for the cold wind coming down from Wyndoore was biting. They devoured the food prepared for them at the castle, and Pimlic realised that the Soroakl’s stomachs could extend as much as the food would go. An entire Bigroual Cheese (matured in a rural quarter of Halfway reputed for its dairy farms) disappeared in the depths of Sandhal, although he only seemed to be gaping at the magnificent horizon. Captain Papa was also showing a great appetite and polished off the three pounds smoked ham that was hanging on the flank of John’s mule.
“The animal is now released of its burden”, said John peacefully. His comment caused great mirth among Sandhal’s companions. It was understood that one of the way the Soroakls were paid for a trip was to fully take advantage of the sustenance provided by their patrons.
Pimlic was shaking his head at the wolfing down of their reserves, but Phial reassured him and told the Indians that the next morning they would have to go hunting and gathering. Far from troubling them, the thought made them so happy that Sandhal started the Dance of the Fifteen Suns, jumping around and making everyone giddy.


Eventually, they had to start off again. They entered the forest under the Wyndoore, for a journey that, according to the Lord, would last five days and just as many nights. The path plunged and they had to slow down their beasts so that their load would not topple over or slide off their necks. As the path wandered between much higher Chapougnets, an uneasy silence fell upon them. Riding ahead, Phial of Atow de Parinoflee set the pace without curbing his skilled mount too much as her sweaty coat still shone in a red glow.

While passing under the branches of a mossy tree, the Lord remembered something and smiled to himself. With the tip of his stick, he uncovered a scar on the bark, in the shape of a swollen P and a V. Vivianne, Volnella? He couldn’t quite remember the names of the sweet girls he had brought here; for not very commendable reasons. Was it eight years ago or more?
Suddenly, he felt as old as the forest. As the shade darkened under the foliage, his mood grew sombre. He pushed Taradelle through the low branches and then galloped, flying over the fallen trunks and the muddy ruts. Soon, he reached the Clearing of Champoulle and sharply pulled the reins of his mare, made tipsy by the ride. The travellers caught up with him, anxious to know why he had stopped.
“Let’s move on. But remain vigilant; in the undergrowth, dangers can spring from anywhere, from the foliage as well as from the ground.”
“Can you be more explicit, Master?” mumbled Pimlic, white and yellow stripes running up and down his skin. Temerity was not the gardener’s strength. Up to today, he had only followed Phial in his wild peregrinations by hearsay evidence.

Phial didn’t answer, his eagle gaze searching the foliage. The glade was vast and luminous, sparsely planted with pine trees, so high that their plumed tops were lost in the sky. Not too alarmed by Phial’s words, the group calmed down. They dispersed trusting the instinct of their animals too happy to mooch about between the great varieties of succulent species. Augustin, who was holding his horse chestnut on the path was submitted to vehement jerks of its mane. Phial turned to him and spoke in a low voice:
“The forest likes to catch the isolated voyager, on the other hand a group forms an intimidating living mass… I advise that your friends close ranks around us. It will be necessary before we penetrate under the cedar pines that you see over there.”
“All right”, said Augustin softly, “I will assemble this unruly troop.” He signed to Captain Papa who gave out a sharp whistling. Immediately Rathal and Pimlic converged towards him but Sandhal had already entered the Cedar forest, his bow pointed to the high branches, on the lookout for a perched feathered creature. Suddenly, Phial dashed Taradelle forward through the ferns, launched himself on Sandhal, caught him by the hair, and threw him brutally to the ground.
“What’s the hell?” just screamed the furious boy. A clatter was heard above. Something was crashing down, falling exactly where he had been standing only a second ago.
A confused mass shattered heavily to the ground, bringing with it garlands of branches and hemp lianas, followed by a shower of leaves and pine cones. Routed to the ground, flabbergasted, they were looking at the object that had fallen like a gigantic sombre fruit but could be a carnivorous animal. Sandhal, alerted by the trembling of the thing, was whining and crawling as far away as possible. In alarm, Captain-Papa was desperately whistling, and the Whites, entrenched, one behind a stump and the other behind a mound, had pulled their firearms, ready to aim. But Phial burst out laughing and dismounted.
“Don’t be afraid my friends! Once on the ground, it is no more dangerous than a bag of rags! The risk of being driven in the earth like a nail is now over.” “Furthermore”, he added, “if he has not yet fallen asleep in spite of the fall, this Weighty could be useful to us.”
The Lord came closer to the giant mole hill quivering before him, crumbling off continuously from the top of its crown. With hands on his hips, he exclaimed loudly:
“Mister Weighty! Do you realise that you nearly flattened us out?”

Sandhal’s insatiable curiosity took over his fright. He got up to observe the strange animal but leaped backward when a stony hand came out of the torso, reached out to him and fell on the prickly shrubs breaking them like wisps of straw. A different noise was heard, like the rough grinding of a mill stone. A rocky voice came out of a rectangular opening at the base of the thing.
“Orrhh! Dear, dear, dear! I fell asleep again. And here I am on the grass, twenty-five meters down. It will take me a fortnight to return to my nest and I do not have enough strength left in me. What a shame!”

Phial came closer to the meteor planted sideways in a pile of leaves. He called out again, cupping his hands around his mouth.
“Good day! We are sorry to disturb your rest, but…”
“What? What?” grumbled the mass, shaking itself. “Is it you, North wind?”
“No, Mister Weighty!” shouted Phial, “I am NOT the North wind! But the master of these Lands! Don’t you recognize me?”
The mineral leguminous plant kept quiet. Two pieces of rock fell from its grey face, highlighting two vague cavities of an empty stare.
“Yes.”
A squeaking breath expired between the black teeth of its mouth-door.
“You are a human being, uh? I know there are several human beings trembling on their little legs around here. I hope I did not crush anyone. That would sadden me because it often happens. That would bring plenty trouble!” screeched the thing drearily.
“NO, no”, Phial reassured him. “You did not squash anyone up. But that’s a miracle, you know.”
“Really?” The cavernous voice appeared almost disappointed.
“Normally I would crush one or two persons, their feet or their heads sticking out under me. But there, I don’t feel anything. You’re right; I think that we should rejoice.”
“I think so, too”, replied the Lord of Halfway, unshaken. “But I wonder how you always aim so well when you fall.”
“Orr, I can’t help it”, answered the Weighty, “But there might be a simple explanation to this.”
“I would like to know it.”
“Chhh... Let me see, let me see. It is a kind of a noise which makes me let go, and nothing else. Apparently, it comes exactly from a place located below me. As if my ears could only pick up the sounds from below my nest.”
“Interesting hypothesis”, said Phial stroking his chin.
“WHAT did you say?” said the Weighty.
“INTERESTING HYPOTHESIS”, repeated the Lord more loudly.
“Isn’t it? But also bizarre, because I am certain that my auditory organs are NOT placed below my posterior.”
“Probably not, although right now, we are wondering”, said the Lord of Parinoflee, addressing his companions in undertones.
They smothered their laughter.
“Now”, bawled the rock, “my ears are located very normally on each side of my skull, which is situated in the upper part of my body. But when they hear a sound from below, my sleepy hands cannot resist. They let go off the bark where they are planted and then…”
“Then you fall down!”
“WHAT do you say?”
“So YOU FALL DOWN!” repeated Phial.
“Exactly! And most often my victims are big brown pigs; because petty creatures cannot wake me up.”
“Happy creatures”, whispered Phial.
“Yes”, sighed Sandhal rubbing his head, aching from Phial’s grip. “By the way, Signor Phial, I don’t know how to thank you for saving my life!”
“Don’t mention it, Young man. I still have to deal with this thick monster, before he has a cataleptic fit. DEAR WEIGHTY”, he went on addressing the mineral stump, “could you tell me your name?”
“Chbaoum Achoupf, from the Tribe of the Fluffy Brothers. Our territory is located farther to the East, before the first cliffs of mount Wino, but I was paying a visit to our cousins Avoirdupois.”
“DEAR CHBAOUM, could you relieve us of a concern by warning us about the presence of your congeners in the vicinity?”
“Well, I can inform you on that point: not a brother or a sister for ten leagues around. Of this I am quite certain, are you aware that we have a special sense of family.”
“Sense of family, in what sense?”
“Oh!” said Chbaoum sounding extremely bored, “there are senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, AND there is the sense of family. This sense is so strong that it becomes very embarrassing when we want to have a more intimate encounter.”
Augustin noticed that the superior part of the mass was blushing and changing to a pinkish-brick colour, as it pronounced these words. Then this impression drifted away. The rocky block became sad and gave out a wail worthy of the North wind.
“Oh but why recall sweet dreams while I am dwelling into such a grave situation?” lamented Weighty. “Here I am reduced to a vulgar stone for the whole season for I will never have enough energy to get back to my nest and sing the call for love. I feel empty and forsaken, without any courage to go and search for Gropenoodles.
“LISTEN to me”, said Phial. “Would you like us to pick some up for you?”
A happy clicking was heard between two flint flats, at the bottom of the rocky throat.
“RRR… you would do that for poor Chbaoum? That would be wonderful. I will be able to get back up very fast. But…
Are you sure you’re not poking fun at me?”
“NOT AT ALL! we will do that for you, but there is one condition attached.”
“I KNEW that could not be done without any trouble” bemoaned the Weighty as it froze in a state of cautious uncertainty.
“While my companions go in the forest to pick up a fresh stock of Gropenoodles, you will answer a few questions for me, and please don’t fall asleep.”
“OO yo… that’s all?” replied a relieved Chbaoum “I was expecting much worse. I’ll do what you say although I cannot promise to stay awake. For in our species, dozing off happens without any premonitory languor.”
“I know”, said Phial “but if you fall asleep, you will NOT get ANY Gropenoodles.”
Several stony scales fell from the granular torso.
“My body has understood, but hurry up, please.”

Phial consulted with the members of the expedition. He ordered Pimlic to describe the plants that his companions would have to look for and to lead the picking.
After having observed the first bunch, they would split into smaller groups and make sure that they did not wander too far away without marking their route. The Indians, already in communion with the forest, were listening to this advice with a touch of respectful irony. The word “Gropenoodles” meant nothing to them but Captain Papa wanted to examine the plant in question, sensing that it might be of the same species of those growing in Guiana in the shade of cocoa trees and swamp palm trees. Pimlic led the troop in the undergrowth, and Phial came back to Chbaoum, hoping that he had not dropped off into a deep sleep in the meantime.
Luckily, nothing of the sort had taken place.
Phial had not only sent his friends to collect the scented stubble to feed Weighty, but also to keep for himself the information he might be given. Not because he did not trust the members of the gang, but he did not want Augustin or even Pimlic to be aware of certain facts until he had time to evaluate their consequences and get the most out of them.
“What do you want to know, Mister Human with Black Boots?” asked the chunk of mountain, with a gnashing sharper than before.
“It’s easy. What is being said in the forest at the moment? What kind of animals or human beings are walking around, or hiding there? I wish to know which dangers and what opportunities we could meet on our way to Mount Wino?”
“It is very difficult for me to speak too long. It thickens my mineral oil”, said Chbaoum. “I will try to answer by recalling for you what has recently happened in this part of the world, what I have just heard, either directly or via the Sense of Family.”
“Yes”, said Phial, “or NO Gropenoodles!”
The huge rocky hand raised and fell down heavy with fatality. Then Weighty started singing in a languid tone, punctuated by screeching sighs:

“As I was flying over the plains of Wals
(Because in our weightless phase, we are as light as clouds)
Roughly twelve days ago,
I saw a black smoke rising, twirling and curling,
From under the great Ash trees in full glory,
I moved away from this place, for we, Weighties
Keep clear from war or any other type of violence,
But I thought that the Watch Hut located at the bottom of the white scarf of soot was on FIRE.
This means that somebody set it.
The fire, I mean.
The Watch Hut on fire! This had not happened for three successions of Weighties, around two human generations, during the last Swelling of the Dragons.
“Yes, my father told me about that”, interrupted Phial dreamily. “At the time he was captain of Mainisle’s jurisdiction.”
“Apparently, the sky almost toppled into the sea, and a great number of mounts crumbled in their valleys.”
“So they say…” nodded Phial.
“That is the reason why, in the face of such a sign, I felt uneasy for several days.
But nothing else happened.
I calmed down and indulged in sucking several little delicious birches.”.

“So, you also suck birches?”

“Yes, by the tip, like with drinking straws,
But of course I don’t kill them.
It only brings their sap up to the top and gets them passably drunk. We also nibble mistletoe berries at tea time.
However this choice impedes our moves and weighs us down. I was ready to settle down in a glade for my afternoon nap, when I heard the racket of a frantic romp.
I had to hold on with all my strength onto a trunk, so as not
to knock two very fast creatures, one chasing the other.
I barely had time to see them, but I know they were humans riding horses. And the pursuer was dressed in a dark great-coat flapping behind him.

“Hmm...” said Phial, “were you able by any chance to see the face or the eyes of this man?”
“No, I only saw his back and only for a few seconds, before I blinked my panels. On the other hand, the pursued turned his head and panic-stricken I saw that his eyes were flashing blue like the sky.”
“Did the clothing of the pursued retain your attention by any little detail?”
“Not really, except maybe… before he disappeared behind the trunks, I caught sight of a red scarf…”
“Are you sure?” asked Phial, his left eyebrow arched like a chevron, a sign of concern for him.
“Alas!” replied the huge rusty mouth, “not really. They were riding very fast.”
“Well”, said Phial keeping an eye on the Weighty’s scaly eyelids to make sure it was still awake, did you notice anything else?”
“What?”
“SOMETHING ELSE?”
“Nothing really but the normal routine
Wild boars running here and there, a fat bovid killed by a Crocaster and abandoned there, its carcass exposed,
Tall white dears belling on the slopes of Wyndoore..
And, on the horizon, the white campanile of Talkahole, the pearl of Hollyblog County, emerging between the high peaks, their hides covered with bumps and lumps...”

A cavernous sound came from the depths of Weighty: he was yawning. A bad sign!
“My dear Chbaoum, stay awake, I beg you. The Gropenoodle is coming!”
The Thing emitted a noise like a shop metal shutter quickly pulled up.
“I can hear my companions coming back by the hacks. No, please, I am sure the collect was good. Hold on until you eat.”
“I’ll try but hurry up my friend,
Or else,
You will only have a dead fat rock before you
Until the next season.”
“All the better for those you won’t be able to squash down!” said a bitter-sweet Phial. “But the information you gave me might be precious.”
“I’m glad about that” answered Weighty, quivering as if it wanted to see the company arrive.
Pimlic emerged from the high ferns, holding a basket of branches.
“So, my friend, did you find anything to nourish our informer?”
“Mm…” answered the gardener giving a pout of disgust, Gropenoodles are not so plentiful in these parts. I did what I could.”
He came closer to Weighty and plunged his hand in the basket pulling out panache of feathery purple peppercorns.
“Right here”, said Phial pointing to the buccal crevice. “Just throw them inside.”
Pimlic complied and an invisible millstone started to grind in the jowls of Weighty. After the third handful of berries, the monster started to purr, throbbing on the spot.
When the others came back, the miracle took place. The huge grey backside raised itself and, with great speed, the stone arms circled a cedar trunk, pulling the massive body up on its aerial climb.
“My goodness! He did not even wait for dessert”, said Sandhal.
“So you also found the Gropenoodles?” said Phial.
“Of course”, answered the three Indians in unison, showing the beautiful harvest that they had gathered.
“Never mind. Let’s leave the Gropenoodles at the foot of the tree. He will smell them and eat them whenever he wishes. After all, he is a good Weighty!”
Phial noticed that Sandhal was winding around his waist a hairy repulsive looking liana.
“Ha ha! my young fellow, you are making provisions of
Chordodendron tomentosum.”
Sandhal returned an enigmatic smile and moved away silently. Pimlic gave him a questioning look.
“Yes, silly! unlike our friends from Guiana, you obviously cannot identify this curare.”
The gardener frowned.
“I have no use for it to make your soups. But maybe I should sprinkle some next time, you would certainly behave in a better manner in the morning.”
“Shut up, you old cross-eyed slug!”

They were getting back in their saddles when Augustin and John appeared in the clearing empty handed, applause and booing welcomed them . Mirth ceased abruptly, as a sinister squeaking was suddenly heard above. They hurried off to resume their trip before a hail of rocks could fall on them.

A last effort was awaiting the overloaded mules. From the bottom of the gorge between cliffs sparkling in the late afternoon sun, they finally approached the crossroad where the Watch Hut was nested. Phial dismounted to observe the site and hid behind a gigantic cedar tree which had gathered its offshoots around its roots.

Cleverly questioned by Augustin, he answered evasively about the testimony of Weighty. The clues were too thin to be mentioned. But he had to be all eyes and ears as they were reaching the Hut. The troop would bivouac there for the night, whether it was burnt or not. If, however the water from the well had not been soiled.

Tabiraho, out of breath, kept silent for a long time. Pierre Boucquard did not realize it. He was flying on the wings of the dream induced by the fantastic tale. He had come to tell himself that it did not matter whether it was reality or legend. He was only sorry that the old story teller could not be taped. He probably would not have accepted to see his words stolen by a heavy turning machine, and Pierre did not have the strength to take notes. “But after all, who cares?” he said to himself. “The most important thing is that his story is dedicated to me alone and that he is relating it to me right NOW, at the risk of exhausting himself. What a tribute!”
And he was more certain than ever that there was a portion of truth at the root of this saga embellished like an epic poem worthy of the great Homer. He could not have possibly invented John or Augustin or their appearance. Admittedly, there existed many Augustin and John among the names of the Frenchmen of the Islands since the Eighteenth century, and also their equivalent in English or Spanish…
How could Old Tabiraho possibly come up alone with the idea of “changing complexion”? Evidently, for a long period of time, quite a number of Negro and Indian families had absorbed the features of their white ancestors. At times, blue eyes came back, surprised to find themselves in the middle of an African face certainly more cheerful than their previous Breton or Norman abode. Could it be the nostalgia carried by these blue eyes which had pushed Tabiraho’s predecessors to imagine the dermal capriciousness of Guama’s inhabitants? Perhaps this could be the most ancient and most passionate desire of the people of these islands, eventually smooth out their visible differences, these marks of social and historical fate, while retaining the advantages of each original feature.
It was also possible, after all, that Mother Nature had managed to produce in one place alone, a very special blend varying by the hours and offering a better protection from the oceanic sun than a pigmentation set once and for all.
It would not be the first time that, in the huge reservoir of life in the region, such durable mutations had appeared. Pierre had heard that in an Amazonian tribe, people had lost the ability to move their eyes, forcing each individual to turn his head around to see, just like the Psittacus Versicolor Parrot. And in another one, people had regained the abundant growth of Homo erectus, their babies and women being as hairy as men. He had also been told of certain descendants of convicts, whose left foot was much more powerful than the right, a reminiscence of their ancestors who had to drag their ball-and-chain with their left ankle.

Of course, Boucquard did not believe all these chimerical fables. But there again, there may have been some wheat in the chaff, some fire under the smoke. He had himself observed a landlubber whose captain’s cap had literally blended in his scalp in such a way that he could not remove it anymore, neither for sleeping nor under the shower. It seemed curiously to restore itself as if the hair, growing as threads, weaved the worn-out part again and again, redesigning with a tuft of blond hair the gold anchor at the front, sanctioning his rank. Yes, Sir, he had REALLY seen this!






Everything appeared peaceful. The log cabin covered with moss was standing there as always, wrapped in blue Chikruas. The access ramp and the drinking-trough were deserted, the door closed. Phial moved forward in the opening, taking cover behind Taradelle in case of an eventual shooting. The poor mare was obviously unaware of her master’s dark thoughts. The ground looked as if it had been trampled on by three horses only ten hours before. But the refuge was empty and clean, except for the blackened hearth. In weariness, the company settled down , they all stretched out their beddings while Rathal attracted Pimlic’s attention to a chain where a great bronze calabash was hanging.
“But…it’s blood!” said Pimlic in a high pitched voice, pallid rays zigzagging across his face. The Lord examined the sticky mark halfway up the chain.
“Human blood, I presume…”
“How can you be sure of that?” asked Augustin.
“Look at the way it dried.”
“Somebody injured used the cauldron?”
“Mm… It’s quite possible.”
“Recently?”
“Most likely.”
Phial, obviously concerned, took a walk around the place, but found no further evidence. They came across some dry wood in a shade. The fire rose up into the air pushing back the chilly dampness. They dined with a hearty appetite, savouring the mushrooms collected by Pimlic and well seasoned by Rathal. Some sang and talked late in the night while the others slumbered off. On the log terrace, Augustin, astride on the barrier, held his flask of Tafia rum to the Lord.
“Hells Bells! You kept that one quiet?”
“It’s the last one!”
“Mm… That’s good!” said Phial after a gulp. “It reminds me of Draco’s Honeyrag, a strong alcohol mixed with hon…”
A howl froze the blood of all presents.
“IT HAS TO BE SANDHAL AGAIN!” voiced Captain-Papa. “This kid puts his foot in it every time!”
The scream tore the air once more, and they were able to locate its origin from behind the hut. They ran to the spot, seeing nothing more than an overgrown vegetable garden and the spiral ironwork of an old well. A new groan came from the thorny bush.
“There”, said Rathal pointing.
Sandhal’s silhouette was moving behind the thicket. His head seemed to be stuck in the fork of a tree.
“What’s happening to you, brother?” asked Captain-Papa holding back his emotions.
“Ah, you’re here”, said Sandhal almost calm. “I think I am jammed.”
“Are you in pain?”
“Not really, but…”
“This young idiot has been caught by an Eyetree”, interrupted Phial, “if we don’t get him out of here, in five minutes, he will become part of this living wood. Let me do it…”
He entered the Fragan bush behind which Sandhal was paralyzed, and cleared his way through the prickles to reach the trunk against which the young Indian was bending, his eyes hidden behind a tortuous branch stuck to his face like a blindfold.
“What happened to him?” whispered Captain-Papa. “I never…”
“Oh!” said Phial, “that’s a typical trick! He was attracted by the glare of a fruit-pearl. He tried to look at it through the hollow of the branch, and the Eyetree caught him by the eyes.”
“BY THE EYES?” exclaimed Pimlic, horrified.
“Yes. It closed around his head and started budding. The buds will penetrate under his skin and transform him into bark before sucking him from inside.”
“But this is ABOMINABLE! We have to saw this horrendous plant as fast as possible”, urged Augustin.
“And chop off his nose at the same time? I have a better idea!” said Phial. He approached the Eyetree, avoiding all contact with the bulbous growth, and stuck himself to the trunk on the opposite side of the young man.
“Sandhal?”
“Yes”, he moaned in reply.
“Describe what you can see. Go on.!”
“It’s… it’s beautiful…”, whispered Sandhal. “It’s… like the sea.”
“You can see the sea in the tree?”
“Yes. A grey beach and swirling water. Waves breaking slowly… slowly.”
“Good”, said Phial in a reassuring tone. He pulled out his dagger and planted it in a knot of the trunk.
“Go on, continue your description…”
“Always the same thing, but the waves are getting bigger and bluer.”
“Perfect. Do you see anything else in the sky?”
“I cannot tell. I cannot turn my eyes, and my forehead is firmly held.”
“Try!” begged Phial imperiously.
“There is a kind of a white ball, globular…”
“Is it turning or is it still?”
“I… I think it’s starting to turn and come closer, like a whirlwind. It’s coming down, down… It’s beautiful!”
“But mortal! Is it coming closer to you?”
“YES. Is it going to hurt me?”
“At one point, it will become pink and you must shout when it becomes pink, all right?”
“Yes, but it’s white. Now it’s just in front of my nose. It’s tingling me…”
“Is it pink?’
“No, no. Ooo. Yes, IT’S PINK!”
Sandhal wailed in pain and contorted himself in an excruciating spasm.
In a swift move, Phial plunged the dagger in a split of the bark, up to the hilt. There was a loud crack like a thunderbolt, and the tree shook. The blindfolding branch retracted. The young Indian rolled over in the grass, like a ripe fruit, rubbing his eyes.
“Really”, said John, “this young brat is going through one crazy experience after another!”
“This time, it’s my fault”, admitted the Lord. “I should have remembered that the kitchen garden was used by a clairvoyant witch, who was growing Eyetrees to improve her magic potions.”
“Did you notice anything interesting, my boy”, asked Rathal paternally, helping Sandhal to get up.
“Nothing but the sea. Oh, yes… at first there were horses running on the beach”, said Sandhal, still methodically massaging his reddened eyes but their enlarged pupils did not appear to have suffered too much,
“Are you sure?” asked Phial. “Did they have riders?”
“I could not see very well, but it’s possible. It was just a fleeting sight, you know, with some white and red…”
“White and red…” reflected Phial, thoughtfully.
He noticed that a net of green venules were running on Sandhal’s hands. Some of them darker were expanding on his eyelids, his temples and his cheekbones. They mingled with the rectangular ritual tattoos of his face.
“Pimlic”, ordered the Lord, “Make a Moirelle ointment for the hands and face of this boy. Let’s go and sleep now. The hellish cackling and chirping of the parakeets and Opaline birds will wake us up very early tomorrow.”
“Sleep? Not me!” protested Sandhal. Rathal and Captain-Papa shook their heads, not wanting to make any unnecessary reproachful comment.

º º
º

It can be cool at night on the tropical islands, notably in the valleys of certain mountains called the “cloud-forests”. Captain-Papa was enjoying the sweet warmth of the hearth, well supplied with massive logs. Close to him, Pimlic was talking to John in a hushed voice in order not to be heard by the masters who were playing cards on the small terrace. They were discussing the strangeness of the young “Boss”.
“My master”, said John, “is a brave gentleman, like there are not many left where we come from, in western regions of the world. I am fond of him and you will NOT get any malicious gossip about him from me!”
“Oh, that is not my intention”, cried out Pimlic. “I just wondered why he seems so happy and sad at the same time, gentle and hard, sometimes talking at ease, and sometimes absent as if visiting another world, mumbling to invisible ghosts.”
“So, you noticed”, replied John, a little worried. “This is not very serious. I have witnessed this since he was much younger. My master, you see”, he added in a tone of confidence, “has a dreamy and imaginative nature. When you see him talking to himself, he is probably planning a new expedition. As you well understand, I have learned to fear these looks! I hasten to bring him back to earth by offering him to play a game of chess, for example, something he appreciates very much.”
“Where do you think this tendency to dream comes from?” asked Pimlic.
“My friend, I must tell you that my master, although he is still quite young, not even thirty yet, has already lived many lives. He was married, but separated from a wife too young for him. He is a father who wants his children to know him and think of him as a glorious figure. He has done almost everything. Cork merchant, sugar cane planter, rum distiller, engineer, interpreter, and even improvised doctor on board, when he made a splint for a shipper whose foot was broken by a falling pulley. First, he lived in France, our motherland, but soon after his father’s death, he found food and shelter in the West Indies, according to him, on an island close by where he was raised by a Creole nanny. When he returned to his native land, he remained there to organise the traffic of cork between Buenos Aires and Bordeaux. And then, he abandoned all Christian occupation to devote himself to adventure. It would not have been very charitable to let him be swept away alone. So I followed him, leaving my own wife and children behind.”
“But that’s terrible!” said Pimlic. “And all this for no apparent reason?”
“On that point, you’ll have to hear my master speak for himself about his inner motivations”, replied John, lighting his pipe of grey Choulcave (the strongest of them all).
“But you must hold your own opinion on this”, suggested the gardener, stroking his straw-like beard.
“What I can tell you is that my master likes to criss-cross the planet. For the moment, your little universe which he discovered by chance thanks to a magical chart, is fascinating him. But, I know that he’ll eventually get weary and take on a new hare-brain idea as soon as the charm has been spoiled.”
“Are you implying that your master incurred the wrath of the God Dragon, to say nothing of the fevers of the Orinoco and the miasmas of other rivers, only to improve his collection of life stories?”
“Something like that”, admitted John, scratching his crotch in a gesture that might have been becoming for the gorillas from the African rain forest. Then he lowered his voice:
“In fact, the young man has another passion, more lasting than all the others.”
“And what is it?”
“You must promise never to repeat it.”
“Of course”, declared Pimlic, his hand on his heart, “and I am sure that you can count on our Indian friends to remain as mute as ant-eaters when their tongue is loaded with insects.”
Captain-Papa appreciated the metaphor and agreed with Pimlic that the Indians would say nothing.
Everybody came closer not to lose any word of John’s revelation.
“Listen, the young man is completely hooked on the mysteries of time. He thinks that there exists a temporal door, although I am not quite sure that he really believes it.”
“A temporal door?” repeated Pimlic, “what kind of bird is that?”
“Not a bird”, said John very seriously. “A door. Yes, a door which could bring two completely different eras together. Should he discover it, my master could go back to the time before his birth!”
“And see his parents kissing? What a joke!” said Pimlic shaking his head.
“Much worse”, said Captain-Papa. “One of our old founder’s tale recalls how the great Cheetah passed to the other side of the moon and saw his parents laughing together...”
“A euphemism, I suppose”, said Pimlic, his skin stripes oscillating now between a tender pink and a pear red.
“ … But he made a noise and his frightened parents stopped laughing. Immediately Cheetah, who was precisely the fruit of this union, disappeared in a non-being state. It took a lot of good will and patience for the Supreme Sloth to get him back. It took him half a century only to come down from his tree, and choose a seat to examine the case.”
“Very funny”, said John after a while, “but I am not sure that I understand the business of the “non-being state”…”
“It doesn’t matter”, said Pimlic. “It means in the Indian way that you cannot come back before you were born because you might disturb the tender activity that produced you. I find it very strange that your master should devote his time to such a bizarre idea.”
“Oh, he only dedicates a small part of his time to this, I must say. Like a recreation of the spirit, if you want.”
“Not very amusing”, said Captain-Papa. “Because, even if you only applaud at your own conception, it is as if you were born of your own free will. And if you are born from yourself, then who is the “self” ? A hole with no name?”
Pimlic meditated a while.
“Mm… what you say sounds very deep, my friend.”
“So deep that I cannot see a thing”, added John. “I think I should go to bed…”

º º
º



The next day, they reached the ridge of the plateau along the North Wood. It skirted around the foot of Wyndoore, in the direction of Talkahole, and then, towards the mounts of Pathill. The landscape, beaten by the winds, was dull. The animals went along at their own pace, without grumbling. And Phial took advantage of their peacefulness to introduce his companions to certain aspects of the life on this small world.
The Archipelago (at the time inhabited by a few hundred thousand souls) was governed (and probably still is today) by a bizarre rule: every one was supposed to play a game.
According to what Captain-Papa understood, the fundamental game for the inhabitants of the Archipelago consisted in establishing between the islands, a harmony reflecting the Celestial Equilibrium. There was no ruling island, although each island was claiming its pre-eminence over all the others in some way or another. And each one of them was trying to challenge the rules set by the others.
For instance, Clotone pretended to be ruling the Archipelago in the name of the fact that it was the most populated, and that its currency -the Fufe- reigned without question on all the others. But, Periache pretended that the destiny of the islands was in the hands of its dreadful magicians, whose predictions and spell castings were believed and feared by all. As for the inhabitants of Lario : they systematically challenged the politics of Clotone, and funnily enough, as long as this dispute went on, a certain democracy pervaded the atmosphere in Clotone and everywhere else…
All of this reminded Augustin of the permanent state of squabble prevailing in the rest of the “real” world.
“But how can you explain this warlike competition in view of Guama’s quest for the Equilibrium of the Universe?”
“Well”, explained Phial, “at the very moment when the cunning genies of politics triumph in Clotone, convincing every citizen of the accuracy of their opinions, at that very moment when they manage to impose a global administration in the name of democracy, and convince all that a reasonable unification is victorious, something unthinkable always happens. An invisible mechanism is released. A mysterious Master of the Flood Gates (whose identity and ingenious device were never discovered) triggers a sudden swell of the Great Current. The Dragon surges and surges, until a flood of monstrous waves eventually splits the archipelago in two.”
“So ?”
“Can’t you see ? The path between East and West becomes perilous, even impracticable for many months. The rebels are more isolated from the Capital Island. Rather than gathering on Lario as they usually do, they easily become bandits on Draco, and eventually sorcerers on Periache. Rebels, bandits and magicians tend to unite on the western side of the Current, and become stronger, because punitive expeditions from Clotone’s Villacopes heavy fleets become sparser. Instead of fleeing away, Lario’s inhabitants get bolder. They pretend to return to Clotone where they have relatives or allies because their privateers can dodge the weakened surveillance of the pass (located to the North, beyond the dangerous segments of the current). Soon, while the Clotonese feel paralyzed, the ferocious gangs from Draco and Periache do not hesitate to ride the Great Dragon in the other direction possibly using some secret routes between the Islands. Political life in the civilized parts finds itself in a state of turmoil. Concord comes to an end, the economy declines. Poverty rises, and a palace revolt eventually drags the Villacope in office to his doom. An authoritarian regime takes power on one or two Clotonese islets, inexorably bringing the political separation of the Republic, and the collapse of its balance. And finally, we return to the initial pattern, while, just as strangely as it loomed up from the waters, our Dragon slowly dilutes itself again.
“What a bizarre phenomenon!” exclaimed Augustin. “If what you say is true, it is unique in History. Politics calmed down at the turn of a faucet!”
“Not that strange”, said sententiously Captain-Papa. “I myself have seen such mechanism among our west-coast tribes; peace and war are regulated by the floods of the rivers where they live.”
“I agree with Captain-Papa” John declared unexpectedly. “In my region, several years of bad weather and spoiled harvests have always brought extreme poverty and made thieves spring up like mushrooms.”
“Yes, but what you will not find in our countries”, remarked Augustin, “is the reverse causality: misery does not bring back happiness…”
“Who knows?” persisted John, more stubborn than a donkey.

Fascinated by Phial’s explanations, Augustin asked many more questions about the secret Master of the Flood Gates, and the Path of Dysme, to which the Lord of Halfway answered willingly within the limits of his shallow knowledge.
“You know”, he admitted, “I have never taken advantage of the books accumulated in the library where your Indians slept. Sometimes, I blame myself, because a lot of unusual events or incongruous behaviours from the Guamaese could finally be explained by studying their causes in the distant past. But life pushes us around, and we cannot spend our life bent over lines of runes or archaic characters.”
“Indeed”, said Augustin, who hesitated a moment before continuing… “I must confess a little secret.”
“Ah!” said Phial, his eyebrows arched like question marks while Pimlic, all ears, came closer.
“Yes. While Rathal, Sandhal and Captain Papa were innocently sleeping under the great bronze angels of your library, I consulted some of its works, by candle light…”
“Gazooks ! What a crime !” ironically said the Lord, holding back his mount attracted by the ravine. “And, what did you discover in all that dust?”
“Nothing conclusive, really. Most of the books are written in Phrisogese, a language related to ancient Greek, but too remote for me to decipher easily. But I consulted a geography book, beautifully adorned with maps and engravings. In it, I saw a particular drawing which I reproduced. Here it is.”
Augustin showed a crumpled piece of paper to his noble companion who unfolded it carefully to examine it. Pimlic was desperately trying to get his mule to catch up with Taradelle.
“It looks like a door dug in the mountain. And these dotted lines probably represent mine galleries. It could be an illustration of a chapter on the Asbalte Mines of Draco. Nothing outstanding about that.”
“I don’t think it is Draco but Maighty, in the central part of the island, not far from here, I guess.”
“Of course, you’re right”, said the Lord examining the map more closely.
“Did you notice this dark object at the end of what you believed to be a mine corridor? Could that spot symbolize an opening on the other side of the mountain? Like the entrance to a tunnel?”
“Yes, something like that. Underground streams run all over this region and are sometimes used as departure points for the mine’s wells. But, may I ask you why you are so interested in such matters?”
“Oh!”, replied Augustin slightly blushing. “Nothing much. I’m always interested in passages…and doors of all kinds.”
“And that is your right” said Phial yawning, “besides we must make a halt. Pimlic ! Can you go ahead with one of the Indians and find a good place to set camp?”
“Certainly, Master, right away”, replied Straw-beard, full of zeal.

They all met under the shade of a huge solitary Agra, standing on a promontory like a black hand pointing to the west over a panorama stretching beyond the extremity of the Island. In the haze of the midday heat, they could catch a glimpse of the vague silhouette of Lario and its precursory islets.

-


III. Nadja Benjou


After lunch, Augustin strolled away on his own to ease his muscles tensed by the long ride, and to meditate in peace. He needed to reflect on his projects which were still rather vague in his mind. Should he linger on certain occult signs, or just enjoy life? More and more the young man was tempted by the second option. The Doors of Time had waited for him long enough. They could wait longer. There would be plenty time later to resume his fantastic quest.
What he was looking for and wanted to discover was too important for him to go there unprepared. When the Doors would open for him, he would have to be at the top of his form and in full possession of his faculties. This archipelago truly constituted an enchanted training ground.
He finally lept up one of the high hillocks, from where he could get a fair insight of the route they had to take. Much larger than he thought, the island was even more sumptuous. Like a thick green carpet, the forest unrolled itself ahead of him, alive with a thousand species. Many rivers wandered in similar curbs through the bush, then lost themselves in the vast marshes of the West. Yonder in the East, the peaks of Wyndoore looked like the crest of an ancient beast of colossal size. Above him, flocks of white birds were joyously calling him to join them in the adventure.
But the afternoon was quickly ripening. He had to turn back to join his own company, probably already getting back in their saddles to travel in the cool air of early evening.
Had he heard a noise? Tearing down the goats’ track, he froze like a pointer. He looked around but didn’t catch sight of anything. The sighing voices of the wind had played a trick on him. He started walking again, but the almost inaudible sound was repeated, like a faint moan. It was coming from a protruding ledge covered with trident leaves shrubs. In the middle of it, a solitary cedar was leaning, its roots clutching the rock like red whips. Augustin prudently made his way to the granular trunk. He saw a crimson pearl burst on a flat stone, followed by another and then, another. He raised his eyes and noticed a frail silhouette clinging to the main branch, wrapped in a cape which must have been white once, a long red scarf floating in the wind.
“Hey you! Do you need help?”
“Yes”, answered a whisper of a voice. “If you do not hurry up, I’ll most certainly fall. The world is spinning in my head.”
“Hold on tightly to the branch, I’ll join you!”
Augustin did a pull up that sent him four yards above the ground, then continued with the velocity of a wild cat. On his way up, he triggered a flight of Sophore birds, nesting in the heights. Soon, he reached the fork where a young man with blond hair… no, a young lady… was clinging, her rough clothings highlighting in contrast, the exquisite beauty of her features. Blood was flowing from her wounded left knee, leaking out through her trousers.
“Could you hold on to me?” asked Augustin.
“I’ll try”, said the young lady, stretching a hesitant arm around his shoulder.
Her sweet voice sounded exhausted and her big blue-green eyes expressed her dizziness.
“Don’t move. Give me your scarf to tie you…”
She leaned on his back, firmly attached to his waist and he carefully climbed down, gripping each branch until his feet touched the ground. He then carefully laid her down and rolled her scarf on a root under her nape.
“Nasty cut!”
“I fell from a horse, but it got worse when I climbed the tree.”
“Doesn’t look too deep, but we must clean it.”
Augustin held his gourd out to her to pour water on the wound. But she brought it to her mouth and swallowed gratefully, then used the rest of it on the cut.
“I will prepare a makeshift bandage…”
He tore his handkerchief in long stripes and, after having rolled her pantaloon leg, carefully bandaged her wounded knee.
“Thanks for your help, Sir! May the Equilibrium protect you! I must admit that I had reached my limits.”
“What happened to you?”
The young lady did not answer and attempted to get up. He held out a hand, she accepted his help, but could not suppress a grimace of pain.
Her movement briefly unveiled the top of her cleavage and Augustin caught a glimpse of its delicate fullness.
“Rest a little. There is no hurry. You should eat something. You are starving.”
He opened his pouch and gave her a piece of bread.
“Please, take these Carachuet seeds, they will revive you.”
“You are saving my life, Signour…”
“Augustin… A traveller from the other world visiting Guama.”
“I am Nadja Benjou, Benjou of Canemo, from the district of Clotone.”
“Nadja? It is…”
Augustin interrupted himself: she was fixing a point behind him. Something apparently terrifying. She huddled up to the tree, her eyes closing to avoid the unbearable, and at the same time uttered a weak “beware!” in a voice choked by emotion.
But the young man had not waited for the warning. An instant reflex made him swing backward the buckled strap of his bag, to divert any potential attack from behind.
His move proved to be efficient. The leather whistled in the air and coiled up around a wrist raised on him brandishing a dagger. The heavy bronze buckle violently knocked knuckles, and their owner shrieked in agony. Augustin pulled sharply, and the aggressor cursing wildly let go of the weapon. The young man unsheathed his sword.

Armoured in black and wearing a helmet through which his eyes blazed, a stocky character was panting, his arms dangling, all surprised by this unforeseen resistance.
“What kind of animal are you to attack so cowardly?” exclaimed Augustin.
His adversary stepped back, screaming his rage, trying to locate his long dagger in vain.
‘Come now! I am ready for you!”
The man answered with a hiss, his dark gaze glowing under the metal visor, his yellow teeth protruding from his foamy red gums. He hesitated, assessing his chances against a young and well trained foreigner.
He suddenly made up his mind, threw his hand over his shoulder, and pulled out a slim damascened sword from behind his back. He brought it down slantwise on Augustin’s throat, who anticipating the move blocked it with a reverse blow. The shock was so violent that Augustin’s blade snapped down to the shell, while his aggressor lost his weapon again. The bulky muscles kept going, his sharp nails trying to tear off the arteries of Augustin’s neck. Luckily, the assailant tripped over and fell his face flat in the muddy grass.
The young man delivered him a hard kick at the temple. The vertebrae of the massive neck cracked and the brownish helmet flew off his head, exposing a hideous baldness, ears torn out like an old tomcat’s and the skin of his forehead looked burnt as if with acid.
The attacker got up, groggy, evoking a monstrous bobcat blinded by a lantern. Coming back to his senses, he saw his sword swinging in Augustin’s hand like a silver snake ready to strike.
The dark warrior did not ask for more and fled, half crawling, half running, stumbling over obstacles, tumbling down the rocky slopes without turning back, booed by the young lady and her saviour.
He finally disappeared from sight in the Chikrua bushes, exasperating the sophore birds.
“Thank you again”, said Nadja, still pale with fright. “He was going to stab you and would have slit my throat on the spot. Our heads would now be hanging at his belt, in the Zwölle fashion.”
“Nice, indeed… There must surely be a better way to travel together.”
Nadja did not smile at his dubious joke.
“I owe you my life twice”, she said. “This is quite a lot for just half an hour!”
Augustin dropped his sword and sat at her side, his head leaning on the trunk.
“My goodness, I truly heard nothing at all! You alerted me just in time!”
‘The villain sprang so fast from the bush that he left me speechless…”
“Thankfully, your eyes were talking for you.”
“By the way, who is this foul brigand?”
“The man you put to flight is Nardor Botulis, an agent of the Sorteress! Oh no! Rather an employee of the Mediat”, whispered Nadja, as if suddenly struck by an unexpected discovery.
“The fortress? What?”
The girl with dark blue eyes looked at Augustin in surprise.
“Undoubtably, you are a stranger to our islands, Signour, for the Sorteress is the most powerful enchantress of the Archipelago. She presides at the Council of the Magdes!”
“And may I ask who are those Mag… des?”
“Oh, it would take too long to explain this now; we do not have the time.”
She got up.
“I think I’ll be all right, now …”
But she was still holding on to the tree and had to put a hand out for help. Augustin assisted her brushing a light kiss on her fingers.
She pulled her hand back gently, her eyes wandering away.
“Nadja, you don’t have enough strength to travel on your own tonight. Why don’t you come with me to the camp where my friends are waiting?”
“I think I’ll accept your gentle proposal, but before…”
She took out from her pocket a little hand stitched linen parcel, and gave it to the young man.
“Signour, I beg you to accept. It is of the highest importance to save lives.”
“I would gladly help you, Damoiselle, because I find you very… amiable”, said Augustin, “but I am ignorant about these parts. How can I possibly accomplish any valuable mission for you?”
“Wait”, insisted the young woman, “I am only asking you to keep this parcel and post it as soon as you reach an inn, or a port. I’ll give you the few necessary fufes to send it.”
“That is not the question, but…”
“The man you put to rout is a member of a numerous party. They will catch up with me tonight or tomorrow, and you are my only chance to get this message to its addressee. If you refuse, it is as if you had let me be killed earlier. I’ll never have time to pass on the information if I don’t seize the chance that you represent…”

She tried to suppress a sob and Augustin was sensitive to her emotion. He kicked away the helmet with its bizarre blinkers.
“First things first! You come to our camp, where you’ll be safe among the best people you could ever meet. You will have time to think it over, and if you still contemplate leaving the parcel with me, I will consider. But, please, tell me more to convince me that I can commit myself wisely.”
The young lady traveller shook her head.
“No”, she said, her voice more assertive, “I cannot take the risk to endanger your life if by mistake you end up talking too much.”
“I am not in the habit of letting words fly away towards those who should not hear them”, said Augustin, frowning.
“I don’t want you to take offense but the forces we are dealing with can hear everything.”
She looked at Augustin attentively and he upheld her gaze.
“Well”, she sighed, “I will tell you the most imoportant part. Before anything else, remember this name: Olivon Clinus.”
“Olivon Clinus?”
“That’s it!”
“It is already ingraved in my memory.”
“It is the name of the person you can trust when you arrive in Clotone.”
“Is the parcel for him?”
“Yes, but I dare not ask you to bring it to him in person.”
“It would probably be slower than through the post.”
“Oh not really, and it would probably be safer for the parcel.”
Nadja took a few precarious steps.
“Nardor Botulis was pursuing me for a long time. He had already caught up with me earlier in the middle of the forest. Lying in ambush he struck me when I passed. I would certainly be dead on the spot, if my horse, moved by some precursory sign, had not taken the bit between its teeth. Shooting forward to avoid the studded bludgeon thrown at my back. But I still received the force of the blow and managed to hang on by miracle. Botulis threw himself in a chase behind me; but luck was on my side. He was so determined to slay me that he did not see a branch of fanguier across his way. He was unhorsed while I escaped.
I was looking for a refuge when I saw a trapper’s hut. I was so shaky, that when I dismounted, I scared my horse and fell, hurting my knee on sharp pebbles. I hid myself for a moment, but when I regained control, I understood my mistake: my assaillant would certainly look for me in this place. I planned to climb in a big tree, but when I left again toward the South, the region appeared to be less densely wooded. When I caught sight of the huge cedar, night was falling. It was too late to turn back. I lashed the croup of my horse so that it would rush forward alone, and cloud my flight.”
“A solution out of despair”, remarked Augustin. “A horse left to run, never goes very far, and always retraces its steps. It probably guided this Botu…thing back to you!”
“I had no strength left in me. And I thought that a little rest would give me a chance to review the situation.”
“The idea, in the end served you right because chance made our paths cross.”
“Yes”, said Nadja, with a smile. “The Providence of the Great Equilibrium!”
Her vivid stare seemed to view him differently.

“Let’s go back on the path.”
Holding and helping each other, the young people reached the track leading to the camp.
“One thing surprises me”, said Nadja. “They say the passage to Guama is almost impossible to cross. How on earth did you reach us, young man from the the other world?”
Augustin told her briefly about his arrival from Guiana, and his encounter with Phial of Atoy.
“This name is not unfamiliar to me. This man most likely belongs to a well known family.”
“He is of a proud nature and an outstanding guy. Most of all, I appreciate his independent spirit.”
“A rare quality”, agreed Nadja, “and cruelly lacking in most of our people”, she added in a princely tone which made the young man smile.
“The conformism of the masses is unfortunately a widely spread feature”, he said lamely.

The mules were peacefully grazing on the bank. They suddenly raised their heads getting somewhat restless. The Indians, more sensitive than their companions to these signs came forward and, recognizing Augustin, saluted him. They did not show their surprise at seeing Nadja walking at his side.
“By the Great Equilibrium!” exclaimed Phial, getting up from his stool, “leave this man two hours on his own and he returns with a fiancée!”
“Come on, Signour of Halfway, that was a cheap joke!” said Augustin half laughing, half annoyed.
“Oh!” said Nadja, “those rough soldiers’ manners do not shock me. I’m not in the least upset: I have heard much worse in my short life.”

Pimlic and John suppressed their laughter. The gracious presence had an effect on them. Augustin introduced them and Phial raised his hat and bowed.
“To what do we owe the honour of your visit, my pretty maid? I can see by your look that a stroke of misfortune has crossed your path…”
Augustin recalled the squearmish and requested for Nadja the tent that John kept folded on his mule.
The whole male assembly bent over backwards to help the young Clotonese promoted to the rank of queen for the evening. Rathal and Sandhal worked wonders at grilling spicy Brenèle T. bones smoking the air in a symphony of aromas. Coincidentally Pimlic discovered a flask of excellent old Glone at the bottom of the holsters of his saddle, and opened it without regret under Phial’s mocking gaze.
John, curiously loosing his awkwardness busied himself around, straightening a cable here, dusting the side of a tent there, and trying hard to make himself useful. Later, he took out a Jew’s harp which Augustin never knew about, and played some songs from the Minervois, his native land. The magical sound touched Captain-Papa and they didn’t have to beg him long for him to recite two or three of these interminable myths that the Indians recite to put their children to sleep, each verse ending in a lament “Oooÿ!”
Nadja, her heart warmed up, applauded the artists. Augustin, all smile, tenderly looked at her with a touch of reproach in his eyes for she had clearly stated that she would be leaving the next day at dawn.
“Anyway”, said Phial blowing out circles of smoke, “we have cleared the mystery of the blood stains on the chain in the watch hut. It also confirms the testimony of the Weighty, and the memories of the Eyetree.”
“Explain yourself”, said Augustin.
“Oh, come on, young man! Did you not pay attention to what I told you about the Weighty? Or to what Sandhal saw?”
“Are you talking about these stories of white and black riders?”
“Yes. Nothing escapes the attention of the inhabitants of the forest. Even if they couldn’t interpret what they saw when they witnessed this young lady of Canemo, right there, dressed in men’s attire and chased by a weird dark rider. But we certainly are still missing pieces to solve the puzzle and understand the reason why this Nardor Botulis attacked you in such a manner.”
“I cannot help you in this task”, said Nadja glancing at a silent Augustin, “and you will understand later, I have to be as discreet as possible.”
“May I ask you, Young Lady, what business is so pressing for you now?” said Phial. “Wouldn’t it be wiser to come with us to Talkahole, instead of scouring the countryside alone?”
“I am grateful to you. But our roads are separating. I have to reach Halfway tomorrow.”
“Unfortunately, I cannot deprive our party of any man. Unless Pimlic…”
“Oh yes, I wouldn’t mind!” exclaimed the gardener, seizing the opportunity.
“Do not worry about me”, interrupted Nadja. “I thank you for the kindness you have shown me, but if you really want to help me, sell me one of your fast chargers. I can negotiate this gold chain around my neck.”
Augustin got up:
“If you need a horse, it will have to be mine, Mademoiselle. I do not want to hear about any price.”
“How can I repay your generosity, dear young man?”
“By letting me accompany you tomorrow morning to the edge of the woods?”
“I grant it gladly. But I’m still indebted to you. At the gate of the city, I will leave the horse in care of the head watchman who already has a few horses to keep.”
“If you wish”, said Augustin.
“I must now go and rest to be awake and ready at the break of dawn. Let me thank you again my friends, for I have found comfort in you. I wonder…”, she continued, looking at Sandhal, “what you added to my glass of Glone. It is very reviving.”
“Nothing”, mumbled the Indian. “Just a pinch of herbs my mother gave me.”
“Your mother knows some useful magic”, said Nadja, her slender hand in front of her pretty lips, holding back a yawn.
She retreated under the tent and the men looked away discreetly to avoid seeing her shadow playing graciously on the canvas.



Dawn was lazily breaking when Nadja’s tent lit up again. A few minutes later, boots on, and strapped up tight in her cloak, she came out, her hair flying in the wind. She bent over Augustin who was still sleeping like a celestial sloth.
“Rise up! young man, if you want to accompany me.”
“What … what?”
The anguish of a nightmare shaded off, and the vision of the young lady enlighted his drowsy features. He got up right away and went to saddle the horse chosen for Nadja.
“Be careful”, he said, “the animal is nervous. He doesn’t like brambles.”
“Do not worry, horses are my friends.”
She stroked the rubber chin of the horse, who immediately hypnotized, flickered his ears in approval.

Later on, they were riding side by side, Augustin on a mule. They passed again in a hollow path, bordered by trees frozen in desperate postures and continued toward the dark canopy of the Wyndoorian forest, misted over in clouds that had settled there in the night.
“Listen, Nadja, I’m going to be frank with you. Your company is precious to me and… I would like to meet you again. I’m worried about you; hardly glimpsed you disappear so suddenly in the midst of all those dangers…”
“Life is made of encounters that cannot be followed up”, she said sadly” but can we fail our duty?
“I don’t know”, mumbled Augustin, “probably not. But can we avoid unique and valued encounters?
The young lady smiled.
“Forgive me, but it might be a little romantic to expect something when our destinies just happened to cross each other…”
“Are you engaged, Nadja? Is your heart taken?”
“No”, she answered quickly, “but…”
She kept quiet and then resumed:
“We have to carry on with our lives. And then again, we might meet again.”
“Life is so short, most of all in the course of adventurous lives like ours. Other existences reach their peak and then wither and pass too.”
“Let’s keep hope!”
“Hope!” retorted Augustin in an elegiac mood, “why should we substitute you for the delights of the present?”
Nadja interrupted him abruptly, shivering.
“Hush! Something is happening! Can you feel it?”
“No! But yes… maybe the wind…Everything is shimmering around us…”
“Not only the wind.”
Nadja could interpret the signs in the atmosphere like a sailor sensing a storm. A humming could be heard everywhere, shrouding everything, shaking the foliage around, like a giant windmill. Then, the phenomenon died off as quickly as it had appeared.
What was that?” whispered Augustin, becoming prudent.
“I really don’t know. Maighty is an island as mysterious for me as it is for you. I feel more at ease in the hustle and bustle of Clotone than in the middle of the unforeseen tantrums of the wilderness of nat…”

A sudden night fell upon them. The wind came back, howling more fiercely, the bushes rose. Two articulated columns appeared armed with long claws, which clapped themselves around Nadja’s cloak. She was snatched up from her mount towards the sky. Daylight returned while Nadja’s screams disminished in the distance. Without thinking, Augustin threw himself in the broken branches, in the direction from where she had been abducted. He just had time to catch the sight of a flying dark mass, receding beyond the distant trees. And under it, the lighter minute patch of Nadja’s cloak.
With the energy of despair, he persevered, forcing his way through the puddles, climbing the giant roots of the Canipores, pushing aside the thorns of the Fragans, and ravaging the filigree of the Chikrunas. But he was soon out of breath and kneeled down, overwhelmed.
A grey object swinging in the wind was coming down towards him. It lay on a giant thistle: a fluffy feather, larger than a Moses’ basket, cupped like a nutshell. It reminded him of the ostrich plumage framed in his old uncle’s office. This memory linked to the naïve painting over a counter of Halfway:
“A crocaster! What a monster! At least twenty feet wings span.”
Augustin got up in a powerless rage.
“It will devour her, or bring her back for its babies to peck at. I have to find its nest!”
He moved ahead, ignoring the sharp lianas lacerating his clothes. He reached a stony ground rising by degrees through basalt rocks with meagre Agras growing sinuously through their cracks.
“If I am lucky enough, this monster’s nest cannot be far”, he thought, climbing on a more elevated block, looking for the slightest clue.
“Over there! The scarf!”
Towards the sunset, the peak of a dead Agra had caught the red cloth like a banner flapping in the wind. He climbed up, grabbed it and buried it under his shirt.
Not far from him a pile of entangled branches as large as a hay stack was boxed in between fallen rocks covered with whitish faeces.
“Hellandam! The nest!”
Augustin pinned himself on a rock face and crawled up to the animal’s crude bed. But the place was desolate and the stench suffocating.
His eyes stinging and doing his best not to throw up, he inspected the site. A freezing breeze was howling, making ever more sinister the sight of the bloody remains, the bits of bones and broken shells, feathers mixed with faeces and entrails. The momified cadaver of a chick as big as a colt proved to him that it really was a crocaster’s habitat. But there was no sign of any living bird, or of a recent human prey, dead or alive. Maybe this nest did not belong to the abductor bird.
Augustin slipped through the rocks and prudently explored its surroundings, but he did not find any other clumsy construction. Ignoring the abominable smell, he went back to his first discovery. The site was now adorned with bright shades of ocres, and shadows of carcasses were projected on the cliffs all around, displaying a nightmarish vision. Augustin noticed a glittering in the eye socket of a human skull on a jutting shelf. He approached and saw a ring glowing in the rising sun. He took it and looked at it carefully. It was gold, and two initials were engraved. NB: Nadja Benjou.
He had no time to ponder. A tremendous shriek exploded, as a sheet of metal torn by huge cutters. Augustin looked up and saw, outlined against the sky, the silhouette of a gigantic bird. The raptor’s head was proportionnaly much bigger than the falcons of his world. Especially the jaws at the base of the beak, they were jagged with teeth like a wood saw.
Augustin stood rigidly on the ground, remembering that the keen eye of an eagle is more attracted by movement than by the shape of a living being. Seen from the sky was he anything more than a bag of rags among the other scraps?

The giant winged creature did not spot him. His eyes like saucers under their feathery eyebrows were gleaming with anger.

Hope and anguish filled Augustin. Left by the nest, maybe Nadja, taking advantage of a moment’s inattention from the beast, had escaped after leaving her ring as an indication of her passing here. Maybe she was crouching not far from him in the bush, thinking like he did.
But why was he blaming himself so much? After all, she was a stranger. But his pride was hurt. He had failed in his role of protector. And that was not all. He had to admit that Nadja’s charms had a strong effect on him. Suddenly interrupted by such a monstruous eruption this emotional encounter left him sorrowful and empty.
But what could he do? Nothing much, just avoid getting caught, wait for the bird to grow weary and hope that the young lady escaped, if however she had not already been gobbled up.

The crocaster finally flew away, hurling from time to time its shrill scream of disappointment. Augustin got up and moved toward the East. He would necessarily have to cross the path to Talkahole. With the late evening, the forest was filling up with strange noises, but the hardened adventurer that he was knew that human aggressors could be more silent than shadows. Finally he was happy to see the faint glow of the camp.

“We were worried”, scolded Phial. “Another quarter of an hour and I was ready to go and look for you.”
Depressed, Augustin recalled for them Nadja’s abduction by the Crocaster. He showed them the ring and shared with them the hope that she was still alive. However he never told them that he had kept her scarf.
“You did your best”, said Phial. “And going on a search party right now would serve no use. Later on, we will try to flush out the bird with the Indians. We need time to prepare the hooks to harpoon it.”
“Thank you, my friends. In a way, I hope we don’t find her, and that she has escaped.”
“Maybe we’ll meet her again in Talkahole”, said Phial. “The Crocaster, you see, is more frightening than really ferocious. It likes to bring back living prey to its nest. And there, it often lets them escape, because it immediately flies back to hunt again. Its chicks, as greedy as they may be, are almost blind and very akward.”
Phial pulled his hat over his eyes, and disappeared in the undergrowth to look for Fragan thorns good enough to make the weapons intended to pierce the flesh of the beast to slaughter.
Around the fifth hour in the morning, Augustin, Sandhal and Phial, wearing light hunting gear, rolled the ropes with the Fragan hooks around their waists. They quickly found the crocaster’s hideaway, but after a careful search, they did not discover any more clues than those found by Augustin the day before. They drove out a flock of goats which bolted off, not waiting for a lost arrow. Reinforced in the idea that the young Clotonese had been fortunate enough to survive, they returned to the camp, and took a hearty sustenance.


V. Tales of Talkahole



This time, it was Pierre who interrupted Tabiraho :
-Could you tell me what was their “solid meal” made of ?
To his surprise, the story-teller did not answer. He was laughing his head off, ending in coughing fits.
-Ah, he finally said with tears in his eyes, you must be really hungry to ask such questions. I am happy that you appetite is back, that guardian of good health. I can serve you a plate of rice accompanied with bananas and star fruits. But I cannot satisfy your curiosity, because Captain Papa did not pass on this souvenir.
-Let’s go for rice with bananas, dear Tabiraho, and I will wash it down with a lot of Rum from the Twelve Rivulets, it has helped me to survive up so far. I have more questions for you…
- I always thought that the White must have been crossbred with mangooses. So insatiable is their curiosity, sighed Tabiraho.
-What was the complexion of Nadja ?
Looking at Boucquard’s hue of dull red brick, Tabiraho was shaken by another fit of laughter convulsing his old frame.
-Well, she was motly, he said at last, with capricious colours like many people in Guama, young man. But she was obviously trying to show a variation of delicate tones, for she belonged to the upper class, which was the way of distinguishing themselves from ordinary people.
-This stupid contempt for skin colours had then infected that world as it had ours, said Pierre sadly.
The old Indian shrug his shoulders :
-When there are no natural visible differences, people are capable of inventing others. Like our neighbours, the ancient Narawakos who used to tattoo the faces of their aristocrats whith such beautiful designs, so deep branded in their skin, that they could make the common people believe that they were irrefutable signs of their divinity.
-Anyway, I am troubled about the idea of Augustin Coriac’s sweetheart being I,bued of a racist conception of society. Have you seen where this madness is leading us in Europe ?
Tabiraho nod his head like a China maggot :
-I know and I am very sad for you and for the world. However, you must not judge Nadja with the eyes of a modern European. She probably considered her choice of colours as the expression on a fine art, an intimate aesthetic sense of dignity. This did not imply in any way considering the others as inferior. More so, since the palette of shades was so rich that one could personalize oneself just like , rather than fit in a rigid social mould, a uniform scale.
-That is a reassuring possibility concluded Pierre, drying up his late bottle.
One of the Tabiraho’s women caught it just as he was going to throw it in the backwaters. She’ll probably use it to pickle some peppers.
Pierre did not really like Tabiraho to lecture him. He felt as if he had returned on the school bench, which he never liked, except that the teacher, instead of wearing a grey suit with a string for a tie, was naked with ritual scarification all over his body, wart hog teeth through his earlobes and a copper ring in his nose. But if he closed his eyes, if it was’nt for the Indian’s rasping voice, you could believe that he was the professor. Where did all this knowledge of science and wisdom came from ? Had he been educated by an anthropologist staying in this village ? It was said that a certain Claudius Lève-Trousse –probably a Belgian- was strolling in the region between Biriri and Nambikidows, gathering enough information to write a two thousand pages book on the Northern Amazonians, just admiring the landscape. However that may be, Pierre Boucquard preferred Tabiraho as a story-teller. The old Soroakl only had to resume the thread of his tale, for the Frenchman to forget about puzzly material contingencies. And the succulent plate of rice, prepared by the youngest wife of his host, steamed lazily away, getting cold.

° °

°

After breaking camp, said Tabiraho, the group moved on a straight line on the oriental hillside of the plateaux defending the access to mount Wyndoore.
Following behind, Augustin, sullen, was holding the scarf to his face, negligently inhaling its fragrance. He was wishing that Nadja had really survived. He had set at the pommel of his saddle the metal helmet left behind by the man in black, after the fight. Angrily fixing the empty stare of the visor, he swore that he would take up the challenge. Nadja’s enemies were now his own. His quest for the Doors of Time will take second place now for a very good reason. Funnily enough, his resolution eased his heart. He spurred on his mount which started to trot, avoiding the pebbles with dexterity.

In the afternoon, as they thought that they were reaching the bare slope climbing to the summit, the company found themselves in front of a rift. The gorges of the Arioso had dug the meanders so deep that one lost all hope of being able to march up to the other side. To make matters worse, this desperate feeling was aggravated when they understood that their narrow cornice -of which the twisted bends were running down below, under impressing projecting shelves-, was following the Arioso downstream, forcing the travellers to move back about 30 miles backwards to the East, further away from the Wyndoore base. As they had no other choice to reach the other bank, they held their resentment against nature. And they were soon rewarded when, on the other side of the ford, they discovered Talkahole on the wing of a sheltered valley.

The village was minute. No more than 40 houses huddled together, not forgetting the inn, the town hall and the bell tower.
On closer observation, the buildings were strange. Built on three or four levels with stones of different colours, they displayed vast windows, all located on the last floor.
Phial explained :
“ Talkahole, my dear friends, is used as a refuge by the foresters, the hunters and all those who venture in this area. Apart from the primitive hostelry, a post-office and a general store, this place is inhabited by a bizarre community of laïque monks who call themselves poets. Those people, around fifty of them are coopting themselves from marginals coming from the whole archipelago. You will see them in the streets wrapped up in dark blue cloaks. They assemble here for the quality of the thinking weeds growing around, which allow them to hold dazzling conversations. They try to captivate the passers-by and to hold them back as long as possible. I, myself, got caught into a discussion which lasted 48 hours, without realizing it. I can assure you that they fervently spend their all life dreaming up castles in the clouds. Sometimes, travellers, fascinated, remain in Talkahole, indulging in those weeds. Their life is then shortened, because they have a tendency not to eat anything else and converse day and night. I have seen some fainting with hunger before me, still uttering a ultimate logical objection.

Augustin smiled : “we must hold our tongues and keep our ears shut.
-That will be more difficult than you think, Signour Augustin !
-We’ll see , my dear Comte”, said Augustin, not sparing the titles due to their guide.

A few people were wandering through the small streets of the village, except for a chair bottomer sitting against a pillar on a square, where a threefoil fountain was gurgling.

They finally fell back on the tavern “The Golden Gigastome” ,obviously in full swing, judging by the number of horses and mules attached in lines like onions in front of a munch-monger stuffed with straw.
As soon as Pimlic opened the door, the company was swallowed in a smoky room and the hubbub of a crowd. Nobody took notice of the newcomers. At each table passionate conversations were going on, washed down by swigs of foamy glone. A busy waiter showed them a corner under a beam where schniarck bones and bundles of garlic were hanging.
They squeezed themselves on two benches, leaving the only chair to Signour Phial, whom the innkeeper soon came to welcome, a delighted expression on his face and a dish towel on his arm.
-Ah, my dear Signour, I see you are coming back with a numerous company. You even manage to unhook a few Indians from their trees, and found two foreign magus covered in leather…
-Do not be so impertinent with my companions, Malandron, cut Phial without excessive harshness. What’s new in Talkahole ?
-Just routine, your Excellency. Last week, there was an imogre hunt and, of course, they all came back empty handed but happy. Nevertheless, two rossiflards and three schniarcks found their way to their game bags. Better than nothing.
-I hope they payed the tax ?
-Oo, said Malandron, of course. But you very well know that for one group who pays his legal fees, three avoid the inn and pay nothing…
-So that in the end you have nothing in your coffer for the legitimate tax collector of this place, that is to say the signour of Halfway.
-But, added quickly the taverner with a larger smile, you are always welcomed, you and your friends, in the best room we have, and for the best meal prepared by my sweet Lantagnelle, and for as long as you wish to remain in my humble abode.
-I know, I know, sighed Phial. That’s why I am not holding against you, Malandron, although you fleece me like a hen.
The man pulled a sour face. He passed his temper onto his valet and ordered him with slaps on his head to prepare the “Governmental Suite” for these gentlemen, and to rub down their horses in the private stables located in the backyard. Then he took their orders for dinner. The list of dishes that they wanted –without taking John’s orders into consideration- was so long that his obsequious smile slowly turned into an expression of vexation, so touchingly truthful that Augustin and Phial burst in laughing.
-And we will most probably want more to morrow morning, said Phial to rub it in. The good air of the mountain frequently opens the travellers’ appetite.
The supper went on gaily. They clinked their glasses many times, once in the honour of the beautiful missus, Lantagnelle, who was circulating among the tables, cleverly avoiding the pinches and the well aimed slaps.
When it was time to smoke the choulcave pipe, while John and Sandhal were already asleep on their benches, a tall bearded man dressed in a long blue robe came to sit down at the strangers’ table.
-I am Blavarian Metaphos, citizen of Talkahole, said pompously the man, please allow me a few minutes of your time…
-Go straight to the point ! grumbled Phial, Master Blavarian, I have already evoked your glorious deeds to my friends.
The tall man puffed himself up, passing his hand on his chin to undo the rebellious knots in his beard.
“I advised them to keep far from you if they don’t want to fall into an incurable state of letargy, continued the unruffled gentleman, displaying his bad manners in setting his booted feet on the table.
Metaphos did not stop smiling, but imperceptibly bat an eye.
-Oh, philosophy is less dangerous than going to war, Signour Phial…
-That is to be seen. Villacopes have started massacres for reasons they believed to be truths engraved for ever in heaven. But I will not discuss this any further with you, because in some way, you have already managed to drag me into a pointless debate !
Master Blavarian emitted a musical giggle and turned himself to order glone all around.
Nobody refused.
-He is rather friendly, your philosopher, whispered John opening an eye.
-You have a rather light sleep, remarked Pimlic.
-I have to watch over Augustion, answered John falling back in doze , his head between his hands.
Augustin was absent-mindedly listening to the conversation, his eyes wandering over the crowd, trying to find some clue calling to mind Nadja or at least her pursuant. The young woman had spoken about an army of foes, and an army are usually wearing uniforms and insigns. Maybe a spy, a member of the gang would be wearing a black jerkin like the one worn by Nardor Botulis. Or maybe his mount the same kind of purple halter with octagonal nails. In fact, he should have started by inspecting the stables.
He excused himself, but nobody paid attention to his departure, because Master Blavarian had managed to captivate his companions’attention with the story of a treasure recently lost in the gorge of Arioso, after the collapsing of a bridge due to the passing of a convoy of travellers from Zigone.
So, the wise ones of Talkahole fascinated the visitors with such trivial episodes, before engaging them into more speculative conversations.
Augustin reached the massive counter in a shape of a horse shoe in the center of the saloon. Behind it, a lon staircaise plunged down, steeply in glowing darkness from where young kitchen boys were briskly coming up, carrying steaming dishes.
-Braaa ! The Kitchen of Lucifer ! thought the young man. His eyes caught a read-hair young woman sitting on a high stool, on the opposite corner of the bar. She seemed to be talking to herself, a strange smile on her lips, with a far away look in her eyes. Listening carefully, Augustin heard that she was singing softly without worrying about the hubbub covering her voice.
He approached Malandron, busily washing the mugs of glone, and inquired about her.
-That’s Mazine Tikal, our nurse. She’s heart-sick, explained the Inn Keeper in a confidential tone of voice. She lost her man she was passionate about. That is why her song is sad tonight. But tomorrow should be better, he added, winking at Augustin. If you stay, you will witness the rebirth of the Phoenix. As soon as she recovers her inspiration. What a voice ! Mark my word.
-Does the name “Nardor Botulis” ring the bell for you ? bluntly asked Augustin, watching for his reaction.
-No, nothing at all, the fat man answered with a total lack of concern. Anymore question, young man ?
-No… but Yes : did you see a young lady dressed in men attire, and looking rather anxious ?
-Hmm, thought Malandron, we see a lot of people passing, but I would certainly have noticed a young woman in men’s clothe. Let me ask my wife. Wait a minute.
Still wiping a large vermeil cup, he hailed a waiter and ordered him to bid his mistress to come. As a ship in high seas, Lantagnelle holding a crater of wine on her heap, pushed her way through the crowd to join her husband, and smiled at him of all her large pulpy mouth.
-Yes my noble husband ?
-This young man wants to know if a girl dressed like a man was seen, and from what I understand, should have been in trouble.
-No. Nothing of the sort, said Lantagnelle, literally swallowing Augustin with her eyes. But, she added laughing, you should talk to Mazine: she has just lost a young man looking like a girl.
Malandron chuckled before scolding his wife :
-Slenderous woman ! Can’t you show some respect to our hosts !
-All the same, continued Lantagnelle, it is the fear of Mazine which made the young disciple disappear for three days. He was so disturbed by the idea of going to bed with the muse, that he fell in the river and has to nurse a cold at home, blankets up to his nose !
-how do you know about this, woman of perverse imagination ?
-I know everything, my honey cream-puff, she said, smacking a noisy wet kiss on her husband’s aquiline nose.

Then; she turned her back to him, went away, swaying her hips from side to side, and lost herself in the swell of raised hands, under the torrid whiff spawned by the deprived hunters’ bulging eyes.

-Is’nt she gordious, my Lantagnelle ?
Augustin sincerely approved.
-Certainly. You are very lucky, Mister Malandron. Can I ask you one more question ?
-Go ahead, my dear !
-Any idea where I can leave a parcel to be sent to Clotone, through the post by the quickest way ?
-Of course. You can leave it to me, but not tonight.
I ensure the service between eight and nine, before the mail collection. This way, I do not have to keep anything of value, which could attract shameless thugs. This would bring me a portion of bumps and scars, followed by a second serving of blows by the unhappy customers.
-I understand.
-Now, it’s my turn, young man, to ask you a few questions.
-Go ahead.
-If your company intends to reach Clotone - if I believe the rumour - why on earth would you want to use the post, which, without any doubt, will take you just as long , going through the most mazy waterways, this at the risk of loosing objects at each port of call.
-I did not know.
-We also have an air service with the great balloons of the Villacopat. It is much faster but your parcel will be opened by the agents of Governor Mungabor. Doubly risky : If it is an object of any market value, it will be probably confiscated or shared among these queer custom officers. If it has no value, these bandits will destroy it in a fit of pique, or will hold it as evidence in a law suit for subversion. No, on second thought, I would not advise you to use the villacopal aerostat. Now, young traveller, I have to leave you. Look : as soon as you stop watching over these scoundrels, they stop functioning properly, and the clients are waiting.
The stout bloke stepped down to the kitchen inferno, and his stentorian voice boomed from the depths.
“Pack of breeloques ! Get busy if you don’t want to replace the cabrits on the spit !”

Augustin came out for fresh air and took a few steps on the square surrounded with opulent-looking houses, their half-timbering bending over him like protective matrons.The Chair bottomer had left. The giant mountains of the east, probably the Wyndoore massif, were turning blue. Very high in the sky, he perceived a flock of Weighties flying home to their hospitable forests to the North. Was Chbaoum Achoupf among them ?

The young man sat at the edge of the fountain, distractedly looking around. The, he decided to take a walk upand down the maze of small deserted streets. His steps resonated on the cobblestones, a little too out of beat. He looked over his shoulder : a little boy in a blue tunique was following him, his head wrapped with a large turban. Augustin continued his roaming, checking with the corner of jis eye if the child was still there. He was.
He took the first street and hid under a carriage entrance, lying in wair for the boy.
Not in the least disconcerted, the child came straight to the door, and spoke very fast in a tiny little voice :
-Mister Augustin ! I must speak to you : I got a message from Nadja. She is well. She wants me to tell you that she has reached Halfway, safe and sound. You must be very careful with Nardor, and most of all, beware of the merchants at Mortangle. Did you hear me ?

-Yes, said Augustin, coming out of the shade. But did you, yourself, see Nadja…

But the little boy had darted off, running as fast as his legs could carry him through the labyrinth of alleys. His quick steps resounded from all sides at the same time. Augustin gave up his pursuit.

The news –which seemed very much to be truthful- made him happy. If he talked to Phial, he could send a messenger bird to Halfway and organize a discreet protection to help the young girl to run away.

On his way back to the inn, he was wandering why he had to distrust the people of Mortangle : were they linked to the black rider ? He would have learned more about the web of mystery surrounding Nadja.
He went to the stables and inspected the horses, but nothing was worth noticing. Through a little back door near the kitchen, he entered the saloon, joined his company at their table. They were still captivated by the discourse of Master Blavarian. Even John whose eyes were wide as sauces, showed the extraordinary interest that the speaker had awaken in him. With nothing left to do, Augustin sat down, ready to put up with boredom.
“… and when they opened their caskets, the citizen of Languiche were greatly surprised , Metaphos was saying, to discover that they were full of…
-twenty gold Fufes ! exclaimed John eagerly.
-Not at all, my good man, twenty… pointed winkles!
-HOW COME, WINKLES ? shouted and indignant John, shifting the table with his belly, but there never were any question of winkles !
-In a sense, yes ! Do not forget that the holders of the treasure were fishermen on the coast. And in these days of scarcity, they collected almost anything.
-Yes, but the treasure ! screamed John, Mother of God ! the treasure…
-The treasure was in the coffer. I did not tell you what was in the Languichers’ caskets.
-Indeed, not, admitted the colossus falling back on his chair. Are you trying to to say that there is some fishy trick ?
-I don’t know what you call fishy, Signour stranger, but a nasty trick for sure. Not performed by the fishermen, I must add. The village simpleton who had been chosen, for what he was, to put the coins from the coffer is the one responsible. Instead of taking a handful of gold coins, he took a handful of winkles and dropped them in each casket, while he was tinkling some metal charms in his pocket. Following orders of the Magistone, the villagers closed their caskets without checking. A week later, no one dared to admit that they had found, for fear of being taken for idiots by everyone.
The story was covered up until the public rumour had it that the simpleton, who had disappeared for months, had been seen in the Capital buying dozens of slaves. They investigated and the disturbing came out to be real : the Idiot had become the richest man of the city.
-O Furunculous bastard ! exclaimed John beating his forehead. How is it possible to hide your cards so well ! I certainly would’nt be able to do it !
-That’s for sure my boy, said spitefully Augustin.
-I have seen worse on this same island, added Phial. But I will not call names.
-Enough of mediocre stories cut in Blavarian waving his sleeves. Signour Augustin being back, I would like to dedicate a little fable to him. I heard it from a merchant who had sailed
To the other side of the world.
-Why not ? said the young man, amused.
-Here it is : one day, a master and his disciple were crossing a mountainous region. A thick fog rose, and the disciple panicks.
-O Master, we should have reached the monastery of Chiton an hour ago. I think we are lost.
Were are we ?
-We are here, quickly answers the master.
And Blavarian kept quiet.
After a while, John got stirred, rubbing the hair of his calves.
-What’s the trick ? I just don’t get it.
-There isn’t any, my good John. Just a lesson the story-teller wants to give us. He puts forward that it is useless to travel with such a zeal when we can be happy where we are.
-That’s true, said Phial, except in a cedar forest where wheighties are falling down.
-Or between the arms of an amorous eyetree, sighed Sandhal.
-Or in a crocaster nest, added Augustin.
-Not to say anything about the closeness of a smelly Ribodol, stated Pimlic.
-Who is Ribodol ? asked Blavarian frowning. I think I’ve already heard that name.
-Oh, said Pimlic, a simple inhabitant of Halfway.
The Indians, not wanting to be left behind added the Great Dragon to the list of places where it was not really pleasant to linger, and where, consequently, the wise man of the story could not have pronounced his maxime.
A good looser, Blavarian admitted that even the greatest wisdom was relative.
-However, the traveller from Orient had told me another anecdote. You tell me what you think of that one, hm ? : once upon a time, two monks on their way to wisdom had to cross a river. A pretty woman arrives and asks for their help. One of the monks takes her in his arms to ford the river. The other grows gloomy and does not speak anymore for the rest of the trip.
-What is troubling your heart, my friend, to pull such a face ? finally asked the first one.
His companion expresses his resentment :
-Don’t you know we are not supposed to touch women ?
-Ah, replied the other one, we have left the woman by the bank of the river, almost two hours ago, but apparently you’re still carrying her.
Blavarian proudly crossed his arms and waited.
-Well, said Phial lighting his pipe, this kind of yarn doesn’t impress me much. Basically the one who is supposed to be wise is the one who thinks that carrying a woman across a river, even if she is pretty, is no more than carrying a bundle. If it had happened to me, I would have left my grudging friend, and would have carried the lady all the way to her home, with her consent, of course.
The Signour’s repartee having brought a joyous approval, Master Blavarian coughed and scowled. But he did not give up.
-Let’s not hesitate to go beyond the decorum, as it appears to please to this company : one evening, a master takes his disciples to the brothel. One of them is embarrassed and runs away. The master, surrounded by prostitutes, but chast, is laughing at him…
-So What ! interrupted Augustin. What did the master want to prove ? That his virility could resist all temptation ? But what, if he did not even dream of a virility ?
-It is excluded, stammered Metaphos Blavarian… It is excluded in this kind of story, as I’ll prove it right away with the next one… Another night, the same master fell in love with a courtesan and declared his love.
-Fine, she replied, I can contemplate satisfying your desire, but first you must ascertain your love to me by sleeping outside my window for 99 nights. On the hundredth, I will be yours.
The master accepts. He comes the following 99 days and nights. But the night of the hundredth day, he does not come back and will never come back. What is the master saying ?
-Oh, who cares ? said Phial, annoyed. We do not know if the master was still tormented by desire on the hundredth day. If he still does, he must be really stupid not to submit himself to the beauty. But if he does not, none can praise him for staying away.
Blavarian got worked up.
-You understand nothing !
At that point, a skinny young man with long shiny black hair, dressed in the same toga than Metaphos, that no one had noticed because he was sitting in the background, took the floor and said :
-Drop it, Master, you know how Signour Phial loves to answer quick as a flash. Let the legend works its way slowly during their sleep…
-You are right, dear Trophilogus, I was to loose my temper. But, he added, smiling at the ambiguous feelings appearing on most of the faces of his constrained listeners, I’m not ready to throw in the towel.
There is a new one you will surely appreciate : one day, a disciple, enraged at not being able to equal his master, approached him from behind and shot an arrow at him. But the master turned around in a flash and flied an arrow back which split in half the student’s one. He started again faster but the master’s arrow breaks his in half. Comes the time when the master does not have any arrow left in his quiver. The disciple believes that he has won and flies an ultimate arrow at his disarmed master. But the master lets out a vital scream, so powerful that it breaks the disciple’s arrow. The young man falls at his feet, prostrating, crying and begging his master for forgiveness, abandoning himself to his mercy. The great master falls at the feet of his disciple, crying and begging for forgiveness… What is the master saying, my friends ?
This time, the company kept quiet. That perplexity pleased the wise Metaphos who rubbed his hands and drunk melisse in great gulps.
Suddenly, Captain Papa rose up like a spring :
-it’s not a real master ! It’s a mirror which gives back to the disciple his own image!
-Probably right, added Augustin and John to back Captain-Papa who seemed so proud of his proposal.
-Not bad, said a gourmet Blavarian, but you’re wrong. Come on, try something else…
-Well, said Phial, the master wants to prove he is still the master whatever would be the discipline : defense or begging. Thus the best way of becoming a master is to do nothing, in order not to be challenged.
-Very good, said Blavarian. You have greatly improved your masterness of masterness. Just go a little further…
-I would not dare challenging a master like you, Blavarian. I am just thinking of a little nap.
-Distressing, hissed the story-teller, hopping his shoulders and sticking his nose in his glass. I wonder if they really deserve my wonderful repertoire.
-Of course, they deserve it, said the skinny novice behind him. But you know that the riddle is not easy : that victory or defeat is of no value for al real master.
-You are right, my son ! I always forget that my hosts have a lot to learn, before they can climb a few steps toward the enlightment. But I cannot help feeling some despair when I consider how long it will take.
His eyes were watering and his posture became so humble, that the Indians bent over the table to comfort him.
The crafty Blavarian pretended a moment being inconsolable, then he got his breath back and threw himself one more time, before Phial could stop him.
“Long ago, a purse snatcher, married to a tavern keeper in Bois Caïman, killed a young couple on honeymoon, to strip them off their money. Disgusted by his own crime, the scoundrel, though a hardened criminal having massacred so many passers-by, decided to end his days. As he was going to slit his throat, he was held back by religious scrupules, and chose, instead, to visit a master to decide his fate. The master, to ward off his suicide, told him : ‘you have many days left in your life to pay for your crimes and do good instead of evil’. The former bandit was wondering how to redeem himself. Passing through a village, he noticed that the inhabitants were separated from their fields by a very dangerous swirling river. A frail footbridge was linking the pastures to the houses but it had to pass around a huge vertical and smooth rock in the middle of wailing waters. Often a peasant or a whole family fell in the river and drowned. ‘Ah, lamented the villagers, if only we could dig the rock, we could build a solid bridge and we would have no more deaths. But this rock is so voluminous and so hard that no one ever managed to cut into it.’
‘Leave it to me, exclaimed the repentant bandit.’ He went with a pick axe and started to dig out the rock. At the beginning every one laughed at him. Children were teasing him throwing small pebbles. After six months, he had dug out a meter and nobody was laughing anymore. The villagers brought him batata and topi tambu, so he would survive. Years passed and the former murderer had become a respected wise man. Every year, the tunnel is moving further into the rock. The man grew old but not for a minute did he stop his work, except for a few hours sleep.
One day a knight arrives at the village, who wants to kill him for he has recognized in him the thug who was plaguing his master’s territory. A crowd of peasants wants to protect their benefactor whose forfeit are of no importance to them. The quarrel gets inflamed and a massacre is going to be carried out when the old man surrenders to the warrior. However, he makes a ultimate plea : ‘let me at least accomplish my task which should not take le more than a few months’. Impressed by the work, the reputation and the humility of the wise man, the young knight agreed to grant him a temporary mercy. He cannot stand to remain idle, so he joins the old man in his task. In a few weeks the two workers have almost reached the other side of the rock. One evening, the knight’s pick breaks through the last obstacle, and the old man gives himself up to him to be put to death. But the latter spares his life and decides to accompany him on the roads to search for wisdom with him.
-A very edifying tale, indeed, said Phial. I suppose, the next step will be when the old man carries a woman through a ford. So we could hear the same story again…
-Not to mention the fact, added Augustin, that the knight worked much faster than the old devil, but did not get the glory, which also explains why he turned sour during the arrows-exchange affair…
-Yes, said John, who went one better : and I understand now why the old man did not stay in the brothel more than ninety-nine nights : the young knight planned to execute him eventually the hundredth morning and to abduct the lady !
Blavarian, a little livid, could not help a nervous snickering.
- And what about the Bois Caïman ? asked abruptly Sandhal.
- Yes ? quivered Blavarian , trying to be friendly. That, I don’t know? That’s the way the story is told, in this far remote land. We always conjure up the Caïman wood, but it’s only a tiny detail.
- -Which has no importance on the narrative ?
- -Oh I don’t think so..
- Neither do the winkles, I GUESS ! eructated John, his forehead lined with deep winkles like a bull’s brow.

Blavarian Metaphos started to hiccup, trying to keep his calm, while the skinny young man was tapping his hand with a feigned compassion.
Then, Pimlic raised his index finger.
-No…Yes ? said Blavarian in a flat and trembling voice.
-Oh nothing, only Captain-Papa who would like to know if the rock was of the same kind than the one that fell on us in the glade. A Weighty, I think. Because it would have been very easy to dig it. As it, obviously, was hollow, with its mouth, there…, and…”
Pimlic interrupted suddenly, seeing the face of Master Blavarian : it curiously seemed to crack like dry clay on the ground. Phial decided to stop the story teller’s torment by calling a waiter who was picking up the empty tankards.
-Hola, young clown ! Go right away to enquire about the suites bokked for us from your master… We would like to go to bed.
The pimply youth dashed off, knocking benches and posts in his clumsy haste.
-Just a little last for the road, implored Blavarian. Give me a chance to tell you one that you could at least understand…
-O No, that’s unfair, sighed Phial….
-On the contrary, that’s a pleasure, said Augustin. It is because my friends and I love your stories so much that we comment them with such alacrity. Please do not take offence, for it springs not from mischief… Quite the opposite..
-If you say so, said Blavarian exhausted. So there is the very last story : a disciple joins his meditating master on top of a frozen mountain, and begs him to help him finding enlightment. But indifferent, the master answers nothing. In desperation, the disciple chops his arm off. Moved, the master turns toward him and asks :
“what do you expect from me ?”
-That you give me peace, Master !
-I have already given it to you, answers the master.
Enlighted, the disciple leaves.
-Is the story finished ? asked Jean like a studious pupil.
-Yes, dear friend. It’s a little marvel of a story, sufficient onto itself.
The assembly’s silence raised hope in the mind of Blavarian. Until Augustin’s comment finally broke his heart.
-Of course, the disciple is at peace, now : he cannot chop his second arm anymore. He’s been reduced to pacification toward himself.
-NO, replied John, no Sir ! He could still cut one of his foot off.
-For me, said Phial, I am very intringued about the cutting of the arm.
-Really ? asked Blavarian in a dry little tone.
-Did the disciple take his arm with him or did he leave it to the master for breakfast ?
Blavarian got up.
-Oh, it’s useless. You see, Trophilogus, a barbarian spirit is inapt to wisdom hermetics. Let’s go, my boy. Let’s return to our Meditation Towers.
-Fine, Master, let’s leave this ungrateful assembly..
-WAIT ! the tone of Phial hooked no reply. MY TURN, NOW.
Please sit down, and listen to a genuine story.
-Mm ? Maybe you could give me the title, because I think I know a pretty fair collection of them, retorted a self conceited Trophilogus.
-I don’t know the title, but here it is : one day, Palombo, the greatest of the greatest masters welcome one of his disciples who implores him to tell him how to reach the truth inside the truth.
Which he had been looking for a long time, scrupulously following all the precepts.
By way of answer, Palombo the great, great master, shows him a pretty round pebble on the road.
The disciple looses himself in conjectures, and for many weeks is tortured by what the great, great master meant. Not being able to stand anymore, he finally asks him : O Greatest master of all, so wise and beautiful with your somptuous forehead and your two valid arms and your two solid feet, I have tortured my poor brains : I cannot understand what you intended to tell me when you showed me this pretty pebble that I have preciously kept on my bed since.
So the great, great master (with all his wisdom glittering around and yonder) replied : do you know, my friend, why this pebble is closer to wisdom than you will never be ?
-No, O wonderful master, why ?
-Well, because this pebble does not ask any stupid question. Nor answer it, anyway.
Upon this, Phial downed his mug of annelle in once, and without waiting for comments, got up, and caught up with the pustular waiter who was carrying his luggage upstairs to the rooms.
Apparently dumbfounded, Blavarian metaphos weighed between amusement and vexation. He finally opted for scholarly mockery.
-My good Trophilogus ! Don’t you think this story comes from Book IV of Chiton’s Crepusculary exercises ?
-Mjahh, condescendingly admitted the Novice. Unless it comes from the Great Treaty of the Sacred medium ? Eighteen-thousandth stanza, or about ?

-I would not like to bother you, gentlemen, but knowing my master, I can assure you that he never opened any book of oriental philosophy : he probably invented the whole story.

-Don’t you want me to relate one of my own invention ? offered Augustin, smiling.
- Oh no, a thousand thanks, said Blavarian as if he felt a sudden pain at the back of his head. But we must absolutely return to our studies. There is a conjunction of stars we must observe tonight. Coming, Trophilogus ?
-I am following you, my dear master, fussed around the ascetic young clerk, kowtowing to his master. The two characters disappeared, followed by the company’s roar of delirious laughter.
They ordered the last round, then each went to his room, except Augustin who left for a stroll in the moonlight.

The village seemed asleep. Only oil lamps were shining on the top floors of three of the story-tellers houses. At the top of one of them, in a turret built on the terrace, Augustin recognized the slender silhouette of Trophilogus bent over some machinery. No trace of Blavarian, maybe getting a refreshing rest after the ordeal of the evening. Augustin turned his eyes back to Trophilogus, intrigued by what he was doing. He did not show the immobile tension of someone looking through a lens, or focusing a telescope, but was shaken in a sort of trance, like a pianist but in total silence. The young magus was sometimes posing, and the resumed his drumming, on an invisible surface. At one point, he seemed to become aware that he could be seen from the square, because he stretched his arm toward a switch, obscuring the small turret.
-Bizarre ! thought Augustin. He went back to the saloon where the clients were becoming scarce. At the bar, Mazine Tical, more beautiful than ever, in her dress the color of an autumn sky and her flamboyant hair, remained solitary, facing an empty glass. She turned her head to Augustin, and smiled sadly. He answered to her smile without coming any closer. Mazine came off her stool and came toward him.
-Good Evening, young man, she said in a velvety voice. Malandron told me that you were looking for a young woman dressed as a man.
-That’s accurate, Madam.
-Can we speak for a while ?
-With pleasure.
As a regular customer, Mazine guided Augustin toward a table sheltered by flying buttresses studded with a impressive collection of perfume burners. She invited him to sit and commented on the great beauty of his eyes.
-But, she added immediately, I have no intention of bothering you.
-Not at all, Madam. The company of such a beautiful woman delights me.
-Thanks for the compliment. Although I am devastated, you are not seeing me under my best day, should I say my best night. But let’s get to the point. The young lady dressed as a man that you’re looking for, could she have passed through here ?
-I think so, and her outfit could not have been very efficient, because it was soon unveiled by those who wanted to harm her.
-Well, a few days ago, a frail blond young man wrapped up to his ears in a red scarf came by. Everybody kept clear from him because of the mountain fever which is raging and is so contagious.
-It was her. But, whatever, I’m not looking for her anymore. Recent information has reassured me about her fate. However, I would like to learn more about the man who was pursuing her and who probably staid in this Inn.
He described Nardor Botulis to her, adding that he thought this individual extremely dangerous.
-You are talking about a zwölle ruffian soldier. He could not have passed unnoticed in this area. He must have avoided the village, or maybe disguised himself also. I am sorry, but I cannot help you there.
-On the contrary, Madam. You inspire me with the greatest confidence and I would be grateful if you could enlighten me about these famous Zwölle, so feared by all.
-It is difficult to speak about this topic, young man. They give rise to a great hatred and their occult power is illimited. Even in this small village where I know everybody, I would hesitate to disclose any information in public about people facing their spiteful malevolence. I would be too scared of ( ). There is light but also shadow in Talkahole, Augustin.
-And, according to you, where are the dangers coming from ?
-I will be honest with you. If there is any danger, you have to look to certain story-tellers.
-Master Blavarian ?
-Oh no. He is a charming man, sometimes a bit naïve and of a rare shyness toward the persons of the fair sex. I am thinking more about his acolytes, she said with a shudder. This Treponeme…
-You mean Trophilogue ?
-Yes, a real slug !
-Maybe you are going too far, but I see what you mean …
-There are also a few cooks this creep is teaming up with. For God knows what foul trafficking !
-Hm.. I have just seen him in a house behind the kapok tree of the square. Busying himself in a very strange manner.
-Where was he in the house ? What was he doing ? quickly asked Mazine.
-He was in the turret on the terrace. He seemed to be tapping on an instrument that I couldn’t identify.
-Oh,said Mazine, this bastard was transmitting information about tonight to his masters. All your descriptions and all what you said is now known by an evil power.
-How come ? asked Augustin, intrigued.
-This Trophilogue lives in the house of Master Blavarian, who is in direct contact with honourable persons in the archipelago. He uses for this a marvellous machine. I was lucky enough to see it, as a child, hidden in my aunt’s skirts, when she was doing the house work for the great story teller. It is a copper box with threads and sheets in the shape of a tambourine. From what I understood of Master Blavarian’s explanations, tapping on those vibratile slabs produces inaudible sounds which escape and are received by a similar machine located hundreds of miles away, making it vibrate in the same manner. By putting fingers on the stretched skin rhythmic thuds can be felt and translated, if the transmitter used a code known by the receiver.The machine is called a dactyloge. There are very few of them and their use is reserved to the elite of this world.
-Oh, I see, a variation of our telegraph. Is Master Blavarian the only one here owning such a machine ?
-In the village, yes, but he never refuses to forward important messages for any citizen of Talkahole.
-Not surprising that Trophilogue can use it…
-On the contrary, because although this crabouisse lives there, I have never heard it said that the master allowed anyone to enter his sky laboratory without him being present. This slimy leech must have taken advantage of his brief absence ! This strengthens my concern. Be on your guard, Sir, I beg you !
Mazine lightly touched the young man’s shoulder with her long nostalgic hand… and went toward the stairs at the bottom of which a little door opened.
-One more word, whispered the pretty woman turning round, SOMEONE is waiting for you in the yard ! A friend ! Have trust !
She smiled again and disappeared like the moon behind the clouds.
Augustin reluctantly moved to the obscure yard, impregnated with nocturnal fragrance; ready to pull his sword at the first alert. He heard the smothered voice of Blavarian, close to him, behind a cascady hedge of trasminelle.
-Do not look at me… Walls have ears. Just listen carefully. Nadja’s pursuers have found you out. They’re watching you. Leave tomorrow morning at the first hours. And don’t tell anyone where you’re heading for. I insist : NO ONE ! Your friends have already be too talkative , inspite of my efforts to keep them quiet by ( ing) them with never ending nonsense.
-Ooh, you were only pretending ?
-Of course. True philosophy , my dear friend, does not need edifying parables . But time is running short. Go to Clotone as fast as possible. On Mayty, above all, beware of the Governor Mungabor.
-Why ?
-I don’t have time to tell you more. I have to…
-What about Nadja ? Do you have any news from her ?
-No, you know more about her than I do.
-I have to tell you, Blavarian, your helper, Trophi…
-Hush ! It is of no importance. In case of an extreme emergency,
try to contact the old Huimror, and tell him this : MINAX MORNAX. Repeat.
-See Huil..no, Huimror, and tell him MINAX MORNAX.
-That’s it. Don’t forget.
There was a light ruffling of leaves and Augustin realized that he was now alone.
He went straight to Phial’s bedroom and tapped a few discreet knocks on the door.
-Come in !
The Lord of Halfway was not sleeping. He was studying maps unfolded on the rounded lid of a big trunk.
-I have news from Nadja, said Augustin.
-Good news, I hope. This young Canemian was rather charming.
-Yes, I have received a message from her, stating that she had reached your county.
-Good. I will make sure that our good Pilco is informed, so that he can keep an eye on her.
Augustin also shared with him the strange conversations he had with Mazine Tikal and Blavarian Metaphos.
-I’m not the least surprised ! said the imperturbable Phial. Blavarian is a serious man, in spite of his proclivity to make up vapid stories. As far as Trophilogue is concerned, we will soon forget him. Go to sleep, Augustin, I deal with everything. Tomorrow, all hands on decks at five o’clock! We’ll meet by the horses in silence ! and slip away unobstrusively, I’m afraid, without any early breakfast, unfortunately for our friend John.
-One minute, Signour Phial, said Augustin.
-Yes, my young friend, said the lord, taken aback.
-You will not send me to bed before telling me who is the great sorceress. And who are the Magdes, of whom Nadja spoke to me. And also the Zwölles ? I need to grab some understanding of what is going on in this world, and you have not told me much up to now.
-Well, sighed Phial looking at his fob-watch resignedly. That means another hour.
And he told the young stranger some of what he knew about Periache and its omen wizards, and the strange close islet of Hirpan, from where Lucilla was plaguing, that is to say the greatest magician of the archipelago.
-She is not a true malevolent power, he concluded, she is mostly in charge of overseeing the religious weddings which have to be first consecrated by the omens and then by her.
-Why would Lucilia want to murder a young woman like Nadja Benjou ?
-I really don’t know and I find this quite unlikely. On the other hand, if this Nardor works for some unscrupulous omen, anything can happen. You must understand, Augustin, that the Benjou Family is prominent in Clotone and Canemo. For generations, its members have been reputed for their courageous stances, and their criticism against the establishment. It is possible that Nadja , following her family traditions, put uncovered something bigger than her.
-Mm. That would make her ever more likeable to me, whispered Augustin.




Allastair Jovial-Bonheur : This athletic man of a dark mood is one of the candidates in the contest for the Great Minor throne. He represents the Fulgurac’h tribe who lives in the impregnable castle on the Furious Islet, to the north of Lario. He will have to choose betweens several loyalties, which will lead him into conflicts that he could have avoided.


Blavarian Metaphos : one of the most famous story-teller in Talkahole. This philosopher, who appears to live in a total retreat, is also one of the very well informed on the matters pertaining to the Guama archipelago.

Borac’h Maïch : wife of the governor Mungabor and Valiant’s mother. She is a first class plotter, and gets rewarded handsomely by Lucilia and others magicians for information. Anyone trading or soldiering in Guama has to cross the path of this hot blooded -and icy- woman. Blond and shiny





Tabiraho : Member of the Soroakl Tribe (the “Boat Men”), living near the coasts of French Guyana. He resides with his group in Pointe aux Diables, near the mouth of the Rio Milpa, where Pierre Boucquard met him in 1931. He knows more than he pretends to know about the Guama affair and his memory is as precise as portable tape recorder.







Vendredi 28 Février 2020 - 05:10
Vendredi 28 Février 2020 - 05:12
Denis Duclos
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Commander des livres de Denis Duclos (études et essais) | Commander des Romans de Denis Duclos / Order Novels by D.Duclos | Introduction aux sujets principaux/ Introduction to key topics | éléments pour une géo-anthropologie (geo-anthropology) | Théorie de la pluralité/Pluralist Theory | Séminaire " PLURALITE OU DYSTOPIE " (Présent et avenirs alternatifs de la société-monde) | Séminaire "Société-monde" de Comberouger | Eléments du séminaire anthropologie analytique/géoanthropologie (2000-2008) | L'actualité en anthropologie de la société-monde / updates on the anthropology of world-society | Géopolitique et géostratégie | Origines et dynamiques des cultures / origins and dynamics of cultures | Les conversations entre cultures / conversations between cultures | Psychisme et culture | Fonder l'anti-sociologie | Fonder les places du singulier et du familier en sciences humaines / setting up the bases of singularity and familiarity | L'actualité dans les sciences de l'homme et de la société / updates on human and social sciences | Analyses de la "grande crise contemporaine" | tueurs en série, tueurs-suicidants de masse : symptômes du Sociétal | Les "grandes peurs" :symptômes muets de désirs et de besoins humains | Histoire d'un chercheur / a researcher's story | Publications | direction de thèses | textes de D.Duclos traduits du français/ Denis Duclos' Texts translated from French (English, German, Italian, Spanish, | bibliographies des thèmes travaillés par Denis Duclos / bibliographies of subject matters studied by Denis Duclos | le programme de recherche de Denis Duclos au CNRS / Denis Duclos' research program at the CNRS | Projets de manifestations, séminaires, rencontres et colloques | Imaginary dialogues (which could have been real if anyone had responded) | questions et choix philosophiques | Prises de positions, alertes / stands, warnings,whistle blowing | Papers, réflexions, interventions, réactions, propositions... / papers, reflections, reactions, interventions, proposals | Thèmes spécifiques (ecologie, risque) / Specific subjects (ecology, risk) | Rabelaisiâneries / Rabelaisian jest


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