Chapter Smallest Non-Twin Prime
Scene Five: Getting a Feel for ItJack directed his crews through the process of unhitching the raft train. He and Denario left the dwarfs on the Kilmun shore to keep watch on the captives. Although the caravan leader probably could have fled, he showed no signs of an attempt. Jack sighed as he poled away. Probably, he wished Brand would run off. It would be less trouble.
Meanwhile, the mallow craft, which was partly under Denario's power and totally under Jack's command, steered to a rough landing on an island in the creek. It wasn't much of an island. It was more of a sand bar full of grass, reeds, rocks, and a few examples of a single type of bush with long stalks. Unlike most other vegetation around, this place looked temperate. The weeds would have been at home anywhere.
“This is the stuff,” said Jack as he moored to a rock. For a moment, the accountant crouched down to the mixture of clay, conglomerates, shales, and quartz pebbles. The river master snorted. He cast his arm toward the plant life. “Not the rocks, Den. Look upslope. See those bushes? Our method depends on me finding these cat-tail things. Fortunately, they're here every time, no matter what else the magic does to the landscape.”
“Cat-tails are not usually bushes.” Denario pointed to a real cat-tail downslope, not the imitation at the crest of the sand. Two rows of actual cat-tails grew along the water's edge, about a dozen plants. “They're reeds like these.”
“Right. But it's the bushes that I mean. The stalks on them are longer. They haven't got much of a feather-tail on them but it's there. As plants, they might have another name, I suppose, among accountants or wizards. To me, they're cat-tail bushes. That's as they seemed to my father and his father before.”
“The stalks at the base must be fifteen feet long.” Denario walked to within touching distance of one. It was a tough-looking plant. He didn't want to brush up against it.
“About that much. Those gossamer strands you see at the ends make them longer than you think. They're as strong, too, and sharp. Be careful.”
“Careful how?” Denario squinted. The sun was bright and hot overhead.
“We're going to harvest these.” Jack pulled out the big knife from his waistband. He knelt to one of the flowering stems.
“What for? Is this like sedge? Are you going to weave something from them?”
“Almost. You've almost got it.” He sawed at the stem with the serrated edge.
“I have?” Denario glanced up the creek at the next hundred yards of wilderness ahead of them. He peeked over his shoulder at the two rafts in the clearing on the Kilmun side. The dwarfs stood calmly near them. Brand knelt in the center of the closest raft. He seemed to be talking with one of his wounded men.
“Have you ever seen a blind man walk?” asked Jack. That brought the accountant back to what they were doing. Jack finished sawing through the base of a stalk. He set his prize down where he'd cut it.
Denario rubbed his bearded chin. He pictured his home. “There are blind beggars in Oggli. The wealthy ones have friends to pull them around. The rest get long sticks and push them out in front.”
“That's exactly right. That's what I mean.” Jack swiveled to flash him a sly smile. He returned to his task.
“Oh no.” The image that came to Denario's head wasn't believable. “You can't possibly steer the rafts with these.”
“Not with them in my hands, no.”
“Oh.” Denario felt let down. It almost made sense for a moment.
“That's why I have a pair of these suits. I wear them.” Jack tossed down the second stalk. He dropped the knife beside it. Calmly, he reached to his shoulders and unstrapped the old, brown pack he'd brought along. Denario had wondered what was in it. His companion fiddled with the rawhide knots at the top. In about half a minute, he pulled out a thick, goatskin tunic. There were holes in it. At first, Denario thought it was a rag. But the pattern of holes was regular. "My father has a suit, too. I brought it. You can wear his.”
“You put the stalks through the holes?" Denario guessed. “You dress up like a porcupine?”
“More like a beetle. I've seen a few that travel their whole lives this way. They feel around for directions by means of quills.”
“But can you feel what's happening? You're not a beetle.”
“It's hard. I don't deny it. That's why my granddad came up with the idea of these suits. It's why I wear one. Inside, you see, are these pegs.”
Denario leaned forward. There were carved bone cups woven into the holes. Those were places for the stalks to fit, he saw. On the other side of the cups were rounded pegs. “That looks uncomfortable.”
“When a cat-tail quill gets hit hard, yes, it can hurt to have the peg press into your skin. But the rest of the time, it's comfy enough.”
“So when you're fifteen feet from shore, you feel the brush of it on one side of your body.”
“A gentle caress.”
“You must punt away to starboard when you feel the riverbank to port.” He gazed at the Mundredi side of the creek. Soon there would be no Mundredi or Kilmun sides, he supposed, only Ogglian peasants. The forgotten temple acted as a divider between the lands of the invaders and those of the established settlers to the southeast.
“Usually. Sometimes I like to stay close to the banks if I feel the water is strange. Or maybe I want to stop for a break. Then I'll head for the shallows.”
“Do you take off your blindfold to eat?”
“Yes, it's safe enough when we're not going anywhere. If we try to think too hard about where we're going with our eyes open, bad things happen. Some people forget how to see. If you get to that point, close your eyes and give a shout.”
“This is some weird magic, Jack.” Denario sighed.
“It is. But this way of charting reminds me of my school lessons in geometry when I was a boy. It should seem familiar to you.”
“It does. It's brilliant.”
“Glad to hear it. Put on the suit.”