Ruth and I watched the crowd humiliate the speaker from the back of the lecture room. The Royal Society, filled with the great names of academia, saw this titleless upstart as fair game and took every opportunity to ridicule his theory. The fact that he had done more, seen more than many of the men in this room mattered naught to them. THEY had the Titles and Degrees and he did not and so nothing he said was worthwhile. Of course, the fact that he HAD been allowed to speak at all showed his determination and drive and that impressed me.
“Ruth,” I spoke to the woman at my side in Romanian. “I believe that we have found our man.”
“Are you certain? Listen to this room. They hate him, make fun of him. They think he is a fraud.”
“Exactly, my love, and this is why I want him. A man like that will do whatever it takes to win the respect of these fools. He must force himself to succeed when another would fail. Besides he is desperate and I prefer my men to be somewhat desperate. They try so hard to please me when they are. Come, let us have lunch and allow our target to calm down a bit. I want him relaxed enough to avoid taking his frustrations out upon us but not so relaxed as to be able to find another solution. When dealing with men like that, this balance is delicate and well worth finding.”
We left the hall, the men bowing to us as they recognized from our dress that our station was far above theirs. At least they understood manners… to an extent.
I hated London. It was near the ending of the 1800’s and London was a cesspool of filth. Thousands of chimneys burned soft coal for warmth and cooking, spewing tones of soot into the skies, soot that settled upon the inhabitants and often made breathing difficult. Few cared to clean after their horses who defecated in the streets as casually as the people cast their garbage into the streets, alleys and rivers. Daily a horse or ten would die, to be stripped of its tack and left to rot in the streets, only to be butchered by hoards of men with knives who ate the choicest parts, selling the rest to those unscrupulous butchers who would label said cuts as fine beef. Jack was carving trollops in the alleys and it was believed that he was related to the King who protected the Ripper. In some parts of the city, one could not wade through the garbage in the streets or survive the muggers in the alleys. The police were generally corrupt and any man in a tavern near enough to the water risked impressment into a navy that still believed in flogging a man to death for stealing a crust of bread. And the Summer heat simply aggrevated the stink.
However, the opera and museums were among the best in the world and nightlife here was to die for.
We had our lunch and planned our actions then, when finished, visited the bank to withdraw some cash, for we would have need of my wealth. It was while passing an alley that we heard the moans. I knew it was a trap or maybe the victim of a previous mugging but I was never one to allow the innocent to suffer if I could interfere. That trait made me valuable to many governments and nobles who sought my hand in and out of wedlock.
We never reached the groaning man for he rolled over with a revolver in hand as his fellow stepped from the shadows. “Ah, here we are dearies, you’ll not miss that money in your purse.” He reached for my purse, obviously having seen us exit the bank.
I commented in Romanian, “This one is mine, you take the other. Let me know when you are ready.”
“Yes, Lady,” she replied in that same language.
“What’s that gibberish?” my man demanded, his weapon waving between we two. Ruth nodded and I allowed him to take my purse, then I pretended to swoon and as he stood, undecided, I took hold of his hand and revolver and jerked it then twisted the hand back until the man screamed. It takes less than four pounds of pressure to snap a wrist and I used far more. The mugger screamed more, his voice sounding like that of a girl as he collapsed and the other almost stepped forward to aid his friend.
Almost, for at Ruth’s silent call, the rats that infested London had come and were climbing up his legs both within and without his trousers, scratching and biting all the while. I kicked my attacker in his throat and removed the revolver from his broken wrist as the other screamed and ran away, beating at his clothes and the vermin within. Ruth recovered that revolver and after hiding the weapons within our muffs, we continued on, the incident already forgotten. Over the years we two had killed many a criminal and soldier, not to mention things that would give nightmares to the staunchest of men. That was our job, how we made our living. As guards and soldiers for governments that wished their difficult deeds to be performed in secret with little notice.
We approached the residence of my target. It was a small apartment, a testament to his ability to earn money but not enough to hire a servant so as I rang the bell, the door was answered by his assistant.
“The Duchess Janice Obrien wishes to call upon Mr Samuel Harkins, if you would please announce me!”
He stared at me and my card, the latter gold embossed and carrying the Arms of both Obrien and Kolchek, the former because my most striking aspect is my bosom and I dressed to enhance that part of my anatomy. Finally he was able to tear his attention from both and saw the rest. I am a woman of average height, maybe 5’4” to 5’6”, depending on my mood, appearing to be barely twenty-five or thirty after a long night though I was much older, strawberry-blonde hair and wealthy enough to afford and enjoy the best clothing and jewelry, though I flaunted neither. Still we wore enough expensive but tasteful jewelry to announce our wealth. Ruth’s pearl necklace alone would pay for this home for a number of years.
Ruth was some 20 years of age, black of hair and with that large nose that announced her Jewish heritage. She had recently taken to allowing her hair to flow free, counter to the dictates of her Orthodox Jewish heritage, though she still wore a hat in deference to her Faith. She was my adopted daughter whom I had met while being hired by the Ottoman Empire to remove her back to her family. Neither wished her so she remained with me, who did.
We both attracted attention for it was rare, almost unheard of even now for a Jew and Pagan to travel together. But wealth and title did wonders and we were quickly ushered in to wait within the tiny entrance as the assistant fetched his master.
We heard words though could not understand them and as quickly were ushered into the salon to meet our host. “Duchess…” he took my offered hand and after a moment’s hesitation, kissed it. “To what do I owe this amazing honor?” He motioned to a couch upon which but I and Ruth sat as he motioned to his assistant who left to rush to a shelf to recover some glasses and a bottle of wine. I waited until our host had poured the glasses then raised and examined mine, then sipped.
“Mister Harkins, we attended your talk and found your theory .. worthy of investigation.”
“Really, Duchess Obrien? Then you believe in the idea that the Earth is hollow and is permeated with a cavern system that will enable man to reach the Inner World?”
“I am aware of the belief that the world is hollow. And as I had heard of your theory from a few other sources, I find that it is a topic worthy of discussion.”
“No doubt from that quack, Von Hardwigg!”
“Among others, Mr Harkins. Professor Otto Lidenbrock’s Paper in Hamburg describing his 1863 Journey from whom I believe you gathered your information, Young Abner Perry in America who seeks to explore the subsurface with a Mechanical Mole that he is currently designing. And a few others. Currently, you are in the lead for my purposes.”
“Your purposes, Duchess?”
“My dear Mister Harkins, you are seeking financing to explore your theory. To date, with little success. How much would it cost to outfit such an expedition?”
He discussed this with his assistant, then they argued quietly as we sipped our wine and examined the room. There were geological fossils and stones on every surface and maps upon every wall, most with notes and arrows to indicate my host’s explorations and studies. Finally they stopped, he turned to me and said, “Duchess, I can outfit an excellent expedition for the sum of… 25,000 Pounds!” He waited for my explosion. That was a fortune, sufficient to support a family quite well for life. Probably more than my host could earn. He was trying to cheat me, hoping for enough to supply his expedition and with enough left over to live a few years in comfort. But he was also willing and ready to drop his price to one more agreeable.
I laughed, then countered, “Considering your discussion and your frequent glances to my card, I suspect that you have padded the amount in the hopes of getting more than you need, but are willing to bargain. Thus I believe you would gladly settle for 15,000 Pounds.”
“You are an astute judge of character, Duchess. 15,000 would be most appreciative and I can guarantee your name in history…”
“Please, Mr Harkins,” I raised my glass for a refill then continued. “I am in contact with your competition. Professor Von Hardwigg has funding from the Royal Society despite his own wealth and is seeking additional funding from me and has made a most generous offer in his attempt to follow Professor Lidenbrock. Professor Lidenbrock is also most persuasive to his supporters and wishes to return to the Underworld from which he exited some seven years ago. Mr Abner Perry in America, though young, is exploring the possibility of entering the crust with his amazing Iron Mole and to whom I have wired funds in anticipation of future results. Please do not treat me as a fool and do not patronize me.” I opened my purse and removed a number of bundles that I placed upon his table. There were three of them, each containing British Bank Notes and each wrapped with a band that described the contents as 10,000 Pounds each. Here was twice what he had sought to cheat me of, and though he glanced at the revolver within my purse, he stared more at the money than at my bosom as I leaned forward.
“The money is yours upon a few conditions.
“First, my husband appears to have followed Arne Saknussemm’s cryptic note seeking such fossils as I see around your room, but has failed to return. Although your desire to explore the inner world is admirable, the finding and rescue of my husband is first on the list. After that, you may do as you wish.” The fame would go not to the first to enter, but to the first to return and publish. History ignores the Vikings, the West Coast Africans, the Romans, the Chinese and many others who visited the New World, caring only for Columbus who returned to announce the news. If Harkins could return before Paul, or Von Hardwigg, then the fame would go to he, not them. The fact that that Icelandic explorer had entered and left nearly a thousand years earlier was as unimportant as the Vikings who first colonized America.
“And who, Duchess, is your husband?” he asked. His eyes never left the money. I like an honest thief. I know where I stand.
“An American, Doctor Phillip Paul, a Naturalist who studies the fossils of long extinct creatures. We met upon a similar exploratory journey when we both were employed by the American Government to rescue some of their lost agents.. I believe that he may have entered the Snæfellsjökull Crater in Iceland some months ago and I would have him back safe.”
“An admirable quest, Mrs Paul. And one I readily agree to.”
“I prefer my own name of Obrien if you would. I may love my husband but he does not own me. Second, you agree to listen to my suggestions. I do not require you to obey, just listen with an open mind. I have traveled much and you may find my experiences of some value.”
“Agreed, Mrs Obrien. I will listen but as I am the leader of the expedition, any decisions remain mine.”
I nodded in assent then gave the deal-breaker, “Third and last, I accompany you along with my daughter Ruth!”
He froze, the snapped, “Outrageous! A woman on such a dangerous journey! Impossible! Why the hardships alone would destroy most men. That I cannot agree to. No, Duchess, I can agree to all you have said and more but will no, cannot, must not allow you to go along with me!”
“I fully understand your viewpoint though per condition two, I must remind you that I have traveled much in Europe, Asia and many other places, many that you will not recognize and in few of these did I find such lodgings as I find in your city. But I shall give you a day to reconsider. You will find my hotel upon the reverse of my card. Good day, Mr Harkins.” And we rose to leave.
“Your money?” he asked for I had made no effort to retrieve that fortune.
“I shall leave it for you as an incentive. Shall we say noon tomorrow? My hotel? I shall be dining at their excellent restaurant and will await your agreement or the return of my money. And one thing more, Mr Harkins,” we had reached the door and I waited for his assistant to open it for us, “I prefer your company but if need be, will finance Von Hardwigg or Lidenbrock under the same conditions. There is a race, Mr Harkins. I wonder which of you three will win.”
Seven years ago in 1863, Professor Otto Lidenbrock of Hamburg had purchased a book on the Norwegian Princes of Iceland, handwritten in Runic. Within that book he found a bookmark, a cipher written and hidden centuries ago by a persecuted Icelandic explorer and naturalist, one Arne Saknussemm. Once decoded, that cryptic note described a way to explore the interior of the Earth by way of Mount Snaeffels in Iceland. Professor Lidenbrock instantly took his nephew and an Icelandic Guide named Hans Beilke into that extinct volcano to follow the path blazed by Mr Saknussemm.
Some months later, the trio emerged from Stromboli Volcano off the northern coast of Sicily. Although few believed their claims, Professor Von Hardwigg, an Englishman residing in Hamburg, did. Perhaps Von Hardwigg purchased by hook of crook the original book and note, perhaps he read all too carefully that first and limited paper presented by Professor Lidenbrock who has a reputation as a miser with information.
Regardless, Both Von Hardwigg and Lidenbrock were making plans to enter and reenter that crater in Iceland. Neither had approached me for funds, both men being wealthy, but my sources informed me that Von Hardwigg and his nephew had already left Hamburg for Copenhagen, then Iceland. Professor Lidenbrock was taking his time, planning a more extensive and careful scientific trip for 1880, some seven years from now.
I had no problems with dropping names to encourage people to act as I wished, even if what I mentioned were not strictly accurate. I just wish that my contacts had been able to procure for me a copy of Lidenbrock’s Journal for the edited report that I had read so long ago was weak in my memory.
In the street, Ruth asked, “Mother, he doesn’t believe in us He’ll refuse you just as they treated us in Romania. Just as the others would.”
“Of course, my sweet, but just as did the Turks, he will come around to accept us and our abilities. He has no choice.”
“That’s why you brought up the others? To force him to act without thinking?”
“Of course. Now, I’d love to see that opera tonight so let us go shopping for appropriate attire.”
“Clothes that we’ll wear once and never see again, I suspect.”
“My love, I may never see that money I left behind either and do I care? Money is easy to earn and as easy to spend. And our lives prove that wealth is, at best, useful. But never a necessity.”
“Of course mother. He will be so surprised when we reveal what we really are to him.”
“That. Dear child, is an understatement.”
We ate our meal, knowing that it would be the last decent meal for some time and awaited our guest. He did arrive, he did place a bundle on our table and he did apologize, all as expected. People in my profession rarely live long unless they can judge and manipulate people. “Duchess, as much as I need the money, I cannot in all good consciousness risk your life and the life of your daughter in such a dangerous task.”
From his stance and tone he expected me to back down like any feeble female in this city. Fortunately, we Irish are made of sterner stuff. “I completely understand, Mr Harkins. Please, have dessert with us and then accompany us for a ride?”
He agreed, sat and under the effects of a very good bottle of wine and dessert, I commented, “I think we will need to do a lot of climbing to remove this from my hips,” I laughed, relaxed.
“I’ve asked around, Mrs Obrien. No one seems to know much of you other than you are wealthy, a fanatic about the Irish Problem, and a Noble of both Ireland and Poland.”
“In Ireland, we call it the British Problem. And to me the only thing about which I am more fanatic is my family. My daughters and my husband being of the highest priority.”
“And yet, you’d expose your daughter to such hardships?”
Ruth laughed, her English still being studied, “Mr Harkins, I doubt that you can show me greater dangers than My Lady and I have already faced.”
“Enlighten me, if you would, Miss Obrien.” It was the first time anyone had used that name to her and she paused… then smiled.
“Moorish pirates in the Mediterranean, a ..” she laughed, “werewolf in Bulgaria, vampires in Romania. The Inquisition in Italy, yakuza criminals and Samurai in Japan and always, bandits and murderers and Turks who sought our lives and wealth and bodies.”
“Surely, Miss Obrien, such an enlightened person as yourself cannot believe in vampires and werewolves?”
“Mr Harkins, I am from Romania where Mr Bram Stoker wrote his novel debasing a hero to my people. I was born but a few leagues from Castle Dracul and my family stood alongside the Prince as he fought to save Europe from the Turkish menace. In my country, we know that your Western Science rarely accepts the truth of the world.”
“Science is all we can trust, Miss Obrien.”
“Then, Mr Harkins, why should we believe you when your cherished science proves that the Earth is solid all the way through?”
“Science evolves, Miss Obrien. And we must always be willing to accept new facts.”
“Indeed, Mr Harkins, like the new facts that the Earth may be hollow? Or the new fact that a woman may be as capable as a man in many situations? Or the new fact that archaeosours that died out millions of years ago may still live underground? Or the new fact that vampires and werewolves are as tangible as that Iguanodon skeleton that was recently exhibited at the Crystal Palace?”
Both I and Mr Harkins raised our glasses to the child. He for her logic, me in admiration for her skill and wit!
I interrupted, “But now, Mr Harkins, our carriage awaits, will you accompany us on a short trip. Oh, and you may wish to carry that bundle, if only to protect we poor women from any mugger that lurks in your British alleys.” Ruth laughed at that thought.
We had to pause to allow a quadracycle to pass, belching smoke and terrifying the horses. Mr Harkins snapped, “Disgusting devices, they should be banned!” But his eyes never left the machine. Men and their toys.
“I suspect that these monstrous machines are the wave of the future. You would do well to invest in them.”
“How can such a thing be as you believe, Duchess? No, I think that they are a fad, nothing more.”
“So they said when Robert Fulton played at steam in America. And now trains and steamships have all but replaced the sail and carriage.”
“My mother generally knows what she speaks, Mr Harkins. I have found her to be very rarely wrong. Of course, Condition Two simply requires that you listen to her, not believe her words.”
“Condition Two applies, Miss Obrien, only if I accept and so far, you have shown me only that you are both pampered ladies, unable to endure the rigors of the inner world.”
“If we cannot, Mr Harkins, I grant you the right to leave us behind and continue on without fear for our safety.”
“I could not, in all good consciousness, do that.”
“But, Mr Harkins, were my husband or my daughter’s lives be at risk, I would gladly abandon you. The fact that I am willing to take Ruth along should indicate what faith I have in my and her abilities.”
“Your faith in yourself is admirable, though misplaced for I have seen many women who failed at physical efforts when they sought to prove otherwise. You must admit that you are, after all, only women.”
I laughed at that. “Mr Harkins, I have filled entire cemeteries with men who believed that of me. But consider this. I am a Noble. You are a Commoner. And many of my Class wonder at the ability of those of your Class to mimic human speech, much less pretend to read. So if the Nobility can be so wrong about the Common Masses, can not the male gender be also wrong about the female sex? Personally, I find that most people are capable of far more than is believed, if only they would be encouraged.”
He looked at Ruth, a Jewess, someone whom his faith saw as little more than an animal and yet, obviously his equal in at least some ways. All I had asked was for him to think about it. “Ah yes, we have arrived.”
He looked around for we were at the docks, a place that no woman would approach save under strong and armed guards or a trollop searching for customers. Yet, Ruth and I walked as if we owned the place. “This way Mr Harkins.”
I nodded to the burly man leaning at a door who bowed to me and opened said door, handing Mr Harkins a lit lantern. “Enjoy your candy shoppe, Mr Harkins.”
The man stared, then rushed to crate after crate, picking open toy after another as I explained, “The best and most modern equipment money can buy. In some cases, so advanced your noble opposition can not even find their equal. The money I have placed in your trust, consider it a bribe for I shall purchase whatever you feel we shall need. Have we an accord, Mr Harkins?”
“Duchess,” he was drooling now and I could have stood naked before him and be unnoticed, “There will be little privacy and you will be required to carry your own packs as you will have few servants to do your work for you.
“Of course, Mr Harkins, assuming that you do not expect me to carry a pack loaded for a burly man. If you can carry a 20# pack, we will carry a 15# for a woman is only 75% as strong as a man. But aside from that concession, plus I expect whatever privacy is possible under the local situation, I will expect you and your companions to accord the both of us every respect.”
“Agreed, Duchess, but I must impress you with the hardships and lack of privacy that we will suffer.”
“Shall I disrobe and move these heavy crates, naked, to prove my willingness?” I began to unlace my dress. Ruth stared at me, then with a shrug and reddened face, began to undress also. “My husband’s safety is far more important to me than any false modesty and physical labour.”
“Please, Mrs Obrien,” he turned away. “That won’t be necessary. Please cover yourselves. Ok, I submit. You can accompany us but please, dress appropriately.”
“We shall, Mr Harkins.” I waved and introduced the new arrival. “Mr Samuel Harkins, this is Captain Cosgrove. He owns the _Maiden of the Waves_, a fast steamship that will take us to Iceland. He has given me an estimated arrival time and we leave whenever you are ready for I have hired the entire vessel. Here is an inventory of the equipment in these boxes, please add to it as you will. Captain, a ten percent bonus for you and your crew for every day you arrive ahead of schedule.”
We left the men to work out their details and entering the cab, returned to our hotel to pack. “Mother, isn’t there any easier way to rescue Philip than this?”
“I wish there were, but so far, we are bound by Law and Convention. Paul came here and then to there so must we.” I would rather another way but the evidence he left behind and the notes I received indicated this path which we must follow.
We received a message from Mr Harkins that showed the Maiden to be leaving in the morning at 6am and we should be there or he’d consider us to have changed our minds. “A test, Ruth. He hopes that we will be unable to arise and dress that early.”
She laughed, “He’s never slept outdoors in Romania then. I’ll have our bags sent over. Mother?” she asked.
“Thank you for bringing me along.”
“Anytime, my love, anytime.”
We were waiting at the dock for our guide as he arrived. “Please Mr Harkins, welcome. Now, as neither Ruth nor I had much sleep last night, I shall leave you men to your work as we nap below.”
“Duchess, I’m surprised that you are here but I doubt that those clothes are suitable for mountain climbing or caveing.” He was glancing at our long woolen dresses and fur muffs.
“No they are not, Mr Harkins. But they are suitable for sea travel to a cold Northern Island.”
The trip took five days and I suspect that the Captain had to rebuild his boiler when we arrived, so desperate was he for his bonus.
I spent much of the time watching Ruth at play with the whales that accompanied our ship, the crew praising our good fortune and none realizing that Ruth was calling them to her. It was that talent that made her family and friends abandon her as devilish. I found it often useful but loved her personality far more. When we were tired of this play, we would read, Ruth attempting once again, to improve her English by reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, And like the three times before, she became angry, swore at the author in Romanian, and threw the book over the side into the sea. Her father had fought with Vlad Dracula against the Turks as her grandfather had fought alongside his father Dracul and she had once met the man herself, though he had ignored her as beneath his station.
We put into Iceland and I paid the captain in cash, then each sailor who lined the deck and we left the ship in Reykjavik where the captain sought a decent cargo and was away by evening.
We spent the night there as Mr Harkins hired guides and Ruth and I toured the city.
”Like Lebanon, Iceland was once a forest. But as Solomon turned Lebanon into a desert to build his Temple, so did the Vikings deforest this island to build their homes, never thinking for the future. Iceland is the oldest Democracy in the world, so far as they define Democracy for even here, as in America and ancient Greece, women have no vote.” We explored the city, largest on this island but still of but two wooden streets, trapped between the chilly bay and the lava fields inland. At the end of the second street we approached the home of the Governor of the island and upon introducing myself, was ushered inside, the man speaking in Danish until I gave him pause.
“Please, sir, although my hair betrays my Danish ancestry, I fear I speak little of the language.” This was in German which he understood, “Thus, though I do not as of yet speak your language, I am more than willing to learn.”
The man apologized for the size and condition of his home but I laughed, “Although no Buckingham palace, and descended from Brian Boru himself, remember that I was born in a thatch-roofed house much smaller than this so never apologize for your condition. It is the heart of a man that turns the smallest hut into the grandest palace.”
He, from that moment on, was our man and so we spent a pleasant afternoon learning about Iceland, her customs and ways, we insisting that we learn the proper ways to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘good day’. I also requested and was given that coloured kerchief with white square that indicated my married status. My willingness to accede to local customs only enriched our position with the Governor.
“Tell me Duchess, what brings you to my island in the company of such a person?” he was referring to Samuel Harkins who had been making a nuisance of himself, not realizing that screaming English all the louder did not make the locals understand him any better.
“My husband seems to have entered the Snaeffels crater seeking geological specimens of a bygone age. I need Samuel Harkins to seek my man and bring him home.”
“Admirable, though the only person to have actually sought to climb Scartaris was Professor Von Hardwigg who left Reykjavik by land some ten days ago. She should be at Stapi at the base within a day or so. Before that, you have to go back to Professor Lidenbrock who entered Snaeffels seven years ago and exited, according to Hans Beilke, in Italy. So, of course, when Von Hardwigg sought a guide to Snaeffels, we suggested Hans as he had done this before.”
“Indeed?” interested, I continued. “I have been in communication with Von Hardwigg and last heard he was visiting Copenhagen. Did he say why he sought Snaeffels?”
“Not at all. He simply expressed an interest in our unique geology and it was I, not he, who suggested Snaeffels.”
“I should like to finally meet with the man. Can you arrainge passage?”
He laughed. “My dear Duchess, we have few decent roads and the ride by land will take some ten days or more by horse. And we have no real wagon that can make the journey. I fear that is impossible…. Unless….” He trailed off.
“Unless, Governor?” I smiled at the man, expressing genuine interest.
“I believe that perhaps I can hire for you a boat. A fishing boat more suited for cod but still, faster and more comfortable than the land trip. Perhaps I can get you to Stapi at the same time. If you don’t mind the smell of fish.”
Now it was my time to laugh, “My dear sir, I grew up pulling Cod from the Stormy North Atlantic from my grandparents fishing boats. The smell will be far from uncomfortable but a pleasant reminder of my past life.
Later, after a fruitless discussion on woman’s vote, or the lack thereof, Iceland being the oldest existing democracy and founder of the Althing where each man could have his say, we bid our host farewell. “Sometimes, Mother, I wonder how any nation survives if they grant ALL men a vote. Most, I find are too stupid to run their own lives, much less a nation or even make decisions.”
Laughing, “That my sweet, is why the Gods invented women, to tell men what to do.”
“And Jason?” she asked. “Does he need a woman to rule his life?” this was a test, she knowing our ‘relationship’.
“Of course, my love,” I kissed her on her lips. “More than anyone else. That is why we have daughters!”
We returned to our lodgings, more a spare room rented from a local farmer, and enjoyed the fire for Iceland, even in late June, was cold. Then Samuel Harkins entered.
“Blast it all! No one will rent me a boat! ‘They are all for fishing’ I am told!” he ranted. “There are no roads between there and Stropi which is where we must go. So we must walk or ride these pitiful Icelandic ponys. Ten days it would take me but, ‘we have no side saddles for the women so must go slower’ I am told. Twenty days before I can set foot upon the volcano!”
“Is that all?” Ruth asked, “I thought your anger was because Von Hardwigg was here.”
Samuel stopped, approached and I readied to prevent an attack for the man would shake the words from her in his fit, and if he did so, I would take his hands. Controlling himself, he ground the words, crushing each one with his teeth before they were allowed to escape his lips. “What… do… you… mean!”
Undaunted, Ruth replied, “The Governor told us that Von Hardwigg had left Reykjavik not ten days ago for Snaeffels.. at the suggestion of the governor who believes that volcano to be of geological interest. Apparantly, Von Hardwigg is keeping his true mission a secret.”
The man ranted for some time, cursing and swearing and had there been breakables within that room, I would have had to pay for their replacement. “Ten days behind today but you two will add another ten or more to that! Curse the day I agreed to your conditions! I am lost! Von Hardwigg will have the glory and I shall have nothing!”
Ruth and I could feel the anger radiating from the man as if a fever so I asked, “Mr Harkins, would you be willing to put aside any anger, past and future, towards us if I could get us to Stapi within a day?”
“How? By sailing an eggshell or perhaps you have brought your Witches Broom to carry us?” His sarcasm made me so angry I came near to beating him senseless. But I am a Noble and so controlled myself before this.. peasant!
“Allow me my ways, Mr Harkins. But if I can do this, will you control your anger at our presence?”
“Madame, if you can get me to Stapi within a day or two, I promise to never rail at you again.”
“Done! Mr Harkins. I shall leave and make my arraingements. Please ensure that all is packed.”
Outside, Ruth asked, “Mother, why must we suffer that man so?”
“Because we need him.” I was trying not to snap at my child. “I have no experience underground where a single misstep may be fatal. Harkins has explored hundreds of caves and has exited safely so can get us in and out alive. I cannot promise either.”
We reached the shore and walked in the cold wind, glad for our woolens as the fisher-folk docked and unloaded their catches. Then, when calm, returned to assure Samuel that all was ready for the morning.
Awaking, we heard Samuel prancing about, “a boat, she got me a boat! What a wonderful woman! I shall be first after all!”
I laughed and woke Ruth, who shared my bed for warmth and we began to dress.
Mr Harkins entered our room unexpectedly and caught us dressing. Ruth was ready, having a lot of experience wearing men’s clothing and not wearing make-up.. or wearing very little. Me? I could wear pants and boots easily, though I preferred a dress. It was the girls that caused me trouble. A corset looked wonderful under a dress and when all you had to do was walk around looking lady-like, it offered the confinement and support the girls required. But neither corset nor dress were suitable for mountain climbing and caving so I had to change my attire.
And in a normal shirt, my large breasts bounced free and any shirt large enough in the bust to fit decently, was too baggy elsewhere so I had had to have a dozen shirts made especially for my figure. And without a corset, I also had to practically invent the brassier myself.
Ruth was sitting on the bed, laughing, “Mother, sometimes I feel so inadequate and ugly standing next to you but today, I am so glad my bosom is so small and easily contained.”
I was standing on my toes, then falling to my heels to encourage my breasts to bounce as I watched and checked for a proper fit. Then I’d bend over to touch the floor with my legs straight (Yoga did wonders) and jiggle and shake to see if the girls fell out or remained safe and secure within their nest. It was while doing this that Mr Harkins entered and stared.
“Good morning,” I called from between my legs, my breasts almost in my face as my upper body was upside down and my lower standing straight up. “Do these pants make my arse look fat?”
“ah…” the man was turning red. “Oh… What in Heaven’s Name are you doing, Mrs Obrien?”
I stood, checked the fit to ensure my brassier remained as secure as my bosom. “Dressing, Mr Harkins. Surely, as a man of the world, you have watched many a woman dress? Or do you focus on undressing them and leave them the difficulty of redressing alone?”
“I’m, I’m not accustomed to such a sight, Mrs Obrien.”
“As you said, Mr Harkins,” I undid my shirt, checked the laces in the mirror as our guide stared, open-mouthed. “There will be little privacy and the girls must be protected. I’d hate to fall from a ledge because Beauty and Grace were bouncing around, throwing me off my balance.”
“Beauty and Grace?”
“Do you not name your penis, Mr Harkins? I believe that is so a man will be on a first name basis with the one who makes his decisions. Well, Mr Harkins, I name mine as well. Mr Harkins, please meet Beauty and Grace.” I motioned to my left and right breast, still partially exposed through my open shirt. “I’m afraid the Countess and her Court are unable to receive visitors at this time.”
He ran from the room as Ruth fall onto he bed laughing, “Mother, you are sooo evil! He’ll be afraid to look at you for days.”
“Perhaps the next time he will knock before entering.” I replied. Few things embarrass me. I lost such feelings long ago crossing Russia.
We quickly packed and entered the main room as all the men stared. “I’m sorry, have I forgotten anything? Should I redo my hair or cosmetics?”
“Mrs Obrien, I.. we are not used to women wearing man’s clothes.”
“Really? I don’t think that these are men’s clothes, I had them made specially for us. Just because they are loose pants and a shirt-like blouse… I can assure you that no man would be caught in these clothes. After all, no man’s outfit would fit the female form where we are large in hip and bust but narrow at waist. A man’s shirt large enough for me in the chest would be baggy at back and belt. So rest assured that neither of us are ursurping your fashion. We are simply wearing clothing that is more suited for our journey. Now, Mr Sigurdssen, would you please ask our host to pack our breakfast to eat on the road and perhaps store our trunks until we return? Here is more than enough gold to ensure at least five years storage fees. Thank you. No, what we are taking is already on the wagon, what I am leaving are our dresses and other lady-like objects that are inappropriate for the trip but necessary for the trip home.”
Embarassed, for men, especially 19th century British men, do not enjoy discussing female attire or anatomy in the presence of said female, the subject was quickly changed. “Duchess, how long will it be until your things are packed for the trip, I’d like to leave in enough time to catch the boat you have provided.”
“Our things are already packed and a glance through the window shows them on the wagon. We readied matters last night to be as little a burden as is possible.” Then I smiled, “Are these five men to accompany us? And you denied me my own servants. For shame Mr Harkins.”
Again, how that man survived the constant flushing of his face. “Please understand that we were trying to dissuade you from a dangerous and uncomfortable journey. For your own safety, of course.”
“Of course, I do not doubt your motives, just your beliefs. I believe, Mr Harkins, that you will find that we adapt very quickly to adversity. Although I enjoy fine dining, excellent hotels with a soft bed, beautiful clothes and jewelry and even servants, I do not need them. I have probably spent more nights under the stars upon a single blanket than have you. Ah, my breakfast is ready.” We both took a basket and approached the door, “Mr Harkins, I was under the impression that we were on a time constraint. Ruth and I shall await you upon the wagon.”
One of the Icelanders rushed to open the door, for which I thanked him in his own language. The first words I learn in any language are ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. If these men would accompany us,. I’d need to learn their language quickly. Snorri Sigurdssen was our main guide and translator though he’d loose the first capacity as we entered the caves.
As we rode on to the dock, I noticed that all eyes save those of the drivers were on my jiggling bosom which had popped a couple buttons. I pretended to ignore the stares though I was glad that my dressmaker had ensured adequate lace to my brassier. If they wished to look, I should be happy that their covert glances were worthwhile.
“Mrs Obrien, I fear that you are exposed a bit,”
“Yes, Mr Harkins, and I shall have words with my seamstress about this. I pay good money for my clothing and hope that the rest are more durable.”
“I notice that you are making no effort to either blush or adjust your garments.”
“If you are correct, none of us will have any anatomical secrets from each other over the days and weeks. We may as well start now.”
“Again, I am amazed that you are so willing and have made no complaints about the ride or accommodations. Generally, from my experience, the wealthy and Nobility are made of… softer stuff.”
I laughed at that. “As much as I enjoy my money,” I slammed a boot on the edge of the wagon. It was well-made and extended to mid-calf and probably cost more than his entire wardrobe. “I find that there are only two valid reasons to possess wealth. First is to have comfortable clothing made for I learned the hard way that you cannot run from danger while bouncing naked and on blisters. Thus I put a great deal of money into my boots and my brassier.”
“Heels? Are those appropriate?”
I glanced to my two-inch boot heels. “I will NOT wear flats! And second, it allows me to purchase the services of men like you.”
“Purchase, Duchess? You make me sound like a common…”
“Whore? Mr Harkins? We are all whores. The honest among us admit it. The truth Mr Harkins, you do not want me here, you have made every effort to dissuade my presence. So the only reason I am here is because you need my money and you are willing to .. accommodate my uncomfortable presence for that money.. That makes you a whore. But for my needs, I have never shied from that term for we nobility sell our children to strangers for titles and position. How many of your own Kings and Queens married people they met on their wedding day? Sold and purchased like a common street drab but willing to sell their bodies and souls for a throne or lesser title.”
“Your cynicism is refreshing Mrs Obrien. Doubtless because you married for love.”
“Yes I did, Mr Harkings.. this time. But my first marriage was one of whoredom. I sold myself to my first husband for his title and wealth. So when Alexii died, I swore to allow my children the freedom I never had. And when I met and fell in love with Paul, I went against tradition, for the man is a penniless Commoner, far beneath my station or status. He has never asked for a penny and loves my insides, not the body I wear.”
“I’m confused about that last statement, Mrs Obrien.”
“Look at me Mr Harkins. I see your stares, All men stare at me. I am attractive, my skin creamy and translucent and without blemish. My bosom large and firm and well worthy of admiration. I have been painted by many artists whose names you will readily recognize and pursued by kings who promised to share their thrones. Although I feel that I am but attractive, many men have called me beautiful and do so often enough to shower me with jewels and other baubles that would purchase many a nation.
“But the truth is, Mr Harkins, I am a fraud. All that you see is fake. A façade. I study men and see who they chase and watch. Then I study those women and practice their looks and mannerisms. I pay people to dress me and do my cosmetics and hair. My original hair is mousy brown, I am actually quite flat-chested, I have no sense of fashion, and were you to see me without all these superficial enhancements, you would not give me even a first look.
“But Paul, he saw the physical beauty but complimented my actions. He saw the person inside and he made me feel… beautiful for the first time. Other men come to me and say ‘Great tits’ or ‘did it hurt when you fell from heaven’ or some other insanity as if such crude remarks will unlock my thighs. Paul admired how I had survived in the wild and never ceased to compliment me on the paper I made or the notes I took or how I helped him in his profession. Oh, he appreciated this body, often thrice a day to leave me weak in my knees and sore to sit… But he LOVED the person within and were I still that flat-chested mousy plain person without a penny to my name that I once was, he’d still love me.
“And for that reason, Mr Harkins,” I leaned forward to give him a good look at the girls and that third button that popped into his lap, “I shall enter the bowels of Hell and face a maddened megolosaur with but a stone knife to find and rescue my husband. And I shall allow NOTHING and NO ONE to interfere with my search.”
He actually looked to my eyes this time and said, “Mrs Obrien, had I found a woman like you, I’d have long ago married and now be happy. My only wonder is how your husband managed to tear himself away from your side.”
I was saved the embarrassment of response for the wagon had reached the docks and stopped. Our guides and pack-men immediately jumped off and began to load our gear onto the fishing boat that had been prepared for us so I excused myself and found a quiet place where I tied a lace to hold my blouse together. Doubtless, my seamstress had rushed this one which resulted in poor buttons. I hoped that the rest of my clothing was made better.
Once packed, Ruth and I were helped onto the fishing boat which took off across the bay towards the twin craters of Snaeffels.
Although I enjoyed the sail, believing that a person has but a limited number of days to their lives though the Gods do not subtract those days spent on the water, both Ruth and Samuel became quite seasick. I held her hair as she spewed her breakfast into the sea. She had shown no signs of sickness aboard the Steamer so it must be the violent rocking of the sailboat that fought the waves and tide that caused the problem. After a few bouts, she settled down and I offered, “Watch the horizon, my dear and think of riding a horse. It helps.”
I admit that I enjoyed the trip, occasionally asking to help steer the boat or pulling the lines as needed, to the amusement of the sailors. Though to be honest, watching Samuel Harkins lean over the side gave me more pleasure.
Docking was simple. We ran aground at full speed, then as the boat shuddered to a stop, the sailors leapt over the side and tied the boat off. Our guide explained that they would leave when the tide came in to float the boat so we observed the crew unload our bags and carry them into town where they were dumped in the middle of the road. I paid the sailors, thanking them with a smile and their own words and received a kiss on the hand in gratitude.
Our guide, Snorri Sigurdssen, found us accommodations and we planned to leave for the top of Snaeffels in the early morning so Ruth and I sought entertainment as Samuel fretted over the delay.
One small hut made of lava was steaming and after seeing a woman enter, I got an idea. “Ruth, I think we have a bath awaiting!” and led her to the hut where, upon knocking and calling out the traditional ‘saellvertu’ or ‘be happy’, we entered to find a number of women relaxing naked in a hot spring. Iceland was entirely volcanic so these abounded and the inhabitants would build a hut around a natural spring and relax in the warmth.
Ruth and I quickly stripped, tied our hair up and relaxed, I rubbing my breasts for it would be long days or weeks before the girls again saw freedom and I wanted to enjoy this bath.
I was almost dozing when Ruth shook me awake in a panic, “Mother, men are entering!”
“What of it?”
“They’re… men!” she said in horror.
Glancing up, I shrugged and asked, “So? It’s like Japan. Why worry? Stare and enjoy the sight.” Then I closed my eyes for although I loved my husband, I preferred the sight and touch of a slender woman so these Nordics held no interest al all. Let them stare at me if they wish, I cared not.
“But Mother…” she insisted. I could feel herself covering herself with her hands. “The Japanese were, .. well barbarians so didn’t much matter.”
I laughed at this, “Sweety, the Japanese word for European translates as ‘southern barbarian’. And both Japanese and christian see you as beneath their notice because of your race and faith. But if you must, leave and I’ll follow later.”
“You mean you are going to lay here, naked, and let them stare!?”
“Am I not worthy of admiration? Their looks harm me not so long as they don’t touch. Besides, like Japan, we will never see them again so why fret?”
Whispering, she tried again, “What if.. Mr Harkins enters?”
“Samuel Harkins is a British Gentleman. He probably bathes twice a year and then only when he gets caught in the rain. He’d never enter a place like this and if he did, he’d run from the sight of the first naked woman he saw. So, kiss me and I’ll catch up with you later. Save me some dinner, my love.”
Embarassed, she did, trying to exit the bath without showing any more skin than was necessary and I dozed again to be awakened by a touch on my shoulder. I couldn’t understand the words but the meaning was clear, it was closing time so I dressed, combed my mop of hair and covered my head to prevent a chill as I left the sauna into the freezing cold.
Finding my way to our lodgings was simple for this far north at this time of the year, the sun never set. I imagine vampires starved up here, which thought reminded me…
I quickly found a dairy, more a farmer with a couple of thin cattle, and for far more gold than he earned, purchased a number of wax-coated wheels of rich cheese. Without the sun, we’d soon suffer the lack of vitamin-D so this dairy would help. Now for citrus or some other source of vitamin-C to stave off scurvy and as much beef and fish jerky as I could carry.
Finally, relaxed from the bath and cold from the wind, I sought my bed and wearing naught but my shift, crawled in next to my adopted daughter and shared our warmth as I fell asleep, thinking that Samuel must be freezing in his solitary bed. That got me dreaming about Paul and how I missed laying in his arms.
We climbed the mountain, assisted by some ponys who carried much of our gear at a very slow pace when Ruth called out, “Mother! Who do you think those people are?”
Ahead and on another path that converged with ours far ahead, were other hikers. They obviously saw us because they quickened their travel. Samuel searched for his field glasses and swore, “Excuse my profanity, Mrs Obrien.”
“Think nothing of it. You shall probably hear worse things from my own lips as the journey progresses. May I ask what you see?”
“Von Hardwigg! He seeks the center before us. Sigurdssen! Whip the steeds, we must reach the peaks before they do.”
Scared, I called to him, “A moment Mr Harkins. The road is rough and a crippled horse will do more damage than an hour of careful trotting. Allow him the danger and we shall pass him as he sleeps!” Our guide fought with Ruth over control of the team, he to speed and she to slow.
He ignored me until Snorri called back, “The woman is correct. I dare go no faster.”
Samuel sat back, angry and watched the other team pull away. Ruth watched too then asked me in Romanian, a language only we spoke so allowed for confidence. “Mother, why is he so upset? Is being the first so important?”
“For a man, it is. Men run a race to win and despite the ribbons, being second still means that you lost.”
“Why? Isn’t finishing enough?”
“My sweet love, Women cooperate, men compete. When we lived in caves and wore animal skins, women had to cooperate to dig the farms and raise the children. But men were the hunters and had to get the best deer to feed their family. And they competed not only with other hunters but also with lions and wolves. We are a product of our evolution. They must be first, the best, the grandest. When you married, what did your husband think when he learned that you were no longer a virgin?”
She looked down, “He was not kind to me. It was his right. I was a whore and deserved his scorn. Had you not given me such wealth for a dowry, I’d still be an old maid. I’m sorry that you adopted such a whore as am I.”
“Oh now, my love,” holding her was difficult on the rocky terrain. “If you are a whore for the rare, very rare lover, each of whom you cared for, then what must you think of me who lay with dozens of women and men, often forgetting their names the next morning?”
“Oh Mother! I could never think ill of you! Please, you are so, wonderful and perfect, I could never…”
“Shush, my child. If you cannot think ill of me who am a hundred times more promiscuous than are you, then you must not think ill of yourself.. or your sisters. My point was not to cause you pain but to explain matters. Your husband wanted a virgin. He wanted to be the first, the best for you. Consider the Christians… when their god wished a son, he did not seduce a woman and wine and dine her. No, he chose a young innocent girl and raped her in her sleep. She had no idea of what had been done to her or why or even who did it. No, she was a virgin who knew not what sex was. And then this stranger enters her bedroom in the dark of night, does.. something to her… then leaves without even a ‘thank you’ or a ‘good evening’. Then, months later when she is growing fat and unable to understand why, the god who raped her in her sleep didn’t even have the courage to tell her directly. No, he had an angel do the dirty deed for him.
“Such are many men. They wish a virgin so we cannot compare them to other lovers and find them wanting or to ensure that only they father their wife’s children. Our host, whose name I will not mention for fear he will know we discuss him, does sleep with the whores he pays to lay for him. Yet, despite his perversion, he still believes that he deserves a virgin bride and will divorce the woman if she fails to bleed like a pig when deflowered. He will demand from his bride that which he will not give her.
“It’s simple competition, my love. He must be the first between a woman’s thighs and he must be the first across that finish line and he must be the first to the Interior. And because those fools in the academic world laugh at his lack of credentials even though he is probably smarter and more capable than most of them, so desperate is he for their praise and acceptance that he will kill himself and us to be first.”
“I still don’t understand why being first is so important. Isn’t being there enough? You were not a virgin when you met Phillip yet he loves you so.”
“And Paul sometimes wishes I were a virgin for my past makes him insecure. He fears that I compare him to my other lovers and find him wanting. Paul is neither the biggest nor the best and he knows that, but he doesn’t understand that to a woman, to most women I should add, being in love MAKES even the worst lover grand. Fortunately, Paul IS grand in that area so I have never failed to be satisfied.
“Tell me, my sweet. Who was the second Jew into Israel? Who was the second man to land in America? Who is the second man on the moon or the second to climb Everest or the second…? History records the first. Only the first. And our host has always been lost in history. This is his one chance to be famous, to make a name for himself to be accepted. And he sees it slipping away. We need to find a way to pass our competition. But not for us, for him else he will take dangerous steps that risk our lives to pass that man.”
“So we must aid Mr Har… to be certain that we live? That doesn’t seem fair. Like virginity, if you are in love, it shouldn’t matter.”
“Welcome to the real world.”
“Mother, I.. I never compared men. I just enjoyed them and basked in their love for me. Even that... first… The one who first seduced me and laughed at my love so I killed him. I can hardly remember his face but, I never compared him to others… later. Do you?”
Absently, “No my sweet child. I focus on my own pleasure and rarely on that of my companion. I suppose that now I can easily but during the act, I forget to do so and enjoy the act.”
“I thought I was different for men compare women all the time.”
“That, my love, they do.”
“And does Jason?”
I glared, then relaxed. “Yes he does. And before you ask, he also rates his love for his children, knowing exactly which he loves more and why.”
“Sweety, I do not. I love you all the same. I love you as much as I love my own son I bore and lost and I love you both as much as I love Jason’s daughters. And I will not tell you what you wish to know. Be content with the fact of our love.”
“yes mother.” But even a part of her smiled, another part was sad. She had never been formally adopted. She simply moved into Jason’s house and when I was around, mine. Both of us called her our ‘daughter’ and she called both of us ‘mother’ but by Law, she was still a Romanian Jew belonging to her Romanian Jewish father who had disowned her or her husband who had divorced her, both as a monster for her ability to control animals with a single thought.
Moments later Snorri cried out in fear as his companions pointed down. Rising from below as a storm of volcanic dust. I had seen such a storm in Arabia, a storm that buried an entire army and the village in which they had taken refuge. NOW Snorri whipped the ponys. Now we were urged upward, seeking to escape death until we found a crevice into which we were able to hide as the storm raged about. Von Hardwigg didn’t rush because of us, he ran ahead to escape this storm that trapped us.
“Damnation!” Harkins swore. “So close and to be hindered by Nature!”
Fortunatly, the storm was bypassing us and we suffered only the edge, but what an edge. My hair, cleaned only the previous day, was now a mess and I’d pee and shit ash for a week after this. Having nothing else to do, I soaked my kerchief from my canteen, wrapped it about my face and took a nap, hoping the wet cloth would filter the dust as Samuel Harkins raved at the elements for his delay.
We reached the summit long after our competition, passing the other bearers as they returned. The Icelanders exchanged greetings and then Snorri explained, “They unloaded and left the others on the summit but don’t know which crater they entered.”
“Damnation!” Samuel swore. “We’ll have to wait for them to enter to find the right crater and that could be days!” What either of them meant by ‘which crater’ I knew not at that time.
We unloaded and then explored the summit, making camp just within for our ordeal with the storm had sapped the strength of all of us. Samuel was telling us in his pompous manner that there were actually two craters to this volcano that had been extinct sine 1219 and we were easily five-thousand feet above sea level. I had no reason to argue for why hire a trusted advisor if you refused to listen to his advice? From my view, we were at the summit of a crater a mile across that sloped down another two-thousand feet to the bottom. As we carefully looked down, I saw the bottom of the crater, level to a distance of five-hundred feet and containing three openings. I could barely make out a small group of people camping at the bottom and when we were rested, and at the whip-like urgings of Samuel Harkins, we carefully made our way down, mostly following the path blazed by the previous team of explorers.
Often we would slow down as the path was of loose rock and snow and ice so our trip down was almost as rough as that climbing the outer slope. We rested often as Snorri explored ahead, then would return to point out a safe path. Our only consolation was that Snorri insisted that we all be tied together with ropes in case one fell. And so eventually we reached the bottom to find it deserted. Von Hardwigg had chosen an opening and entered. How he did this was as unknown to me as was the method that Samuel would use to choose his entrance for I had, foolishly, assumed that there would be but one opening. Now we had three choices and the wrong one could cost us days, weeks or even our lives.
We explored all the possibilities and noted that the melting snow and rain was flowing down the inner cone and entering two of the openings but not the center one. “Surely Arne Saknussemm would have entered the crater which provided drink?” I asked our guide.
“So it would seem, Mrs Obrien.” He said absently as he searched, then shouted, “HERE! LOOK!” and upon the shone he had found was carved a set of Runes that I translated as ‘Arne Saknussemm!’ Samuel’s joy was such that he actually danced about that stone. I had seen Scots show less reverence to the Stone of Scone. Still, there was no way to determine which opening was the correct.
“It has to do with the shadow of the Sun!” Samuel lectured.
“But, Mr Harkins,” I offered, “Would not the progression of the heavenly Bodies change after all these centuries? And was not this land buried under ice and snow during ‘The ‘little Ice Age’ and so would not the crater rims have changed over the centuries?”
“Posh and balderdash!” he exclaimed. “I’d not expect a woman, even one as capable as are you, to understand these things.”
Ruth defused my anger with her own, “Mother, he doesn’t know! He took your money, dragged us all this way and risked our lives and he doesn’t even know!”
Sighing, I replied, “Then, my child, we must help him. Look for a clue.”
Then one of the Icelanders called out!
“He says that the others went down there! He found their tracks.” Looking down with field glasses, he remarked, “I see them, They are halfway to the bottom. Quickly, then,” Samuel cried, “we must follow and pass them.”
“Mr Harkins, wouldn’t that be dangerous so soon in the journey. Surely we can advance at a brisk pace and slowly overtake them?”
“I don’t expect a woman to understand this but we must pass him quickly or loose the race.” Race! My only race was to find Paul before he died. The man was fine in his University Museum but lost in the field. Or lost in a field where the old rules failed. Paul needed me to save him.
Samuel was packing his bag and directing the Icelanders to follow the other trail when Ruth called out, “Mr Harkins, I believe that they chose the wrong crater.”
He paused then looked at me as I lifted two fingers. Condition Two required that he listen to us, not obey us. “Very well, Miss Obrien, why do you say that?” He sighed in irritation but did listen.
“There, see those shadows. Bats live there. And there is water. But none where Von Hardwigg entered. This is the way down.”
“Hr Harkins, I believe Ruth. She has a talent for this sort of matter, a talent that has saved my life on many an occasion.”
He strode back and forth, muttering to himself then looked at Snorri who shrugged. He got paid even if we got lost. “Ok, Mrs Obrien. I didn’t see any cloud break while he was up here so he didn’t use the sun for a guide. And he is so far ahead that I’d never catch up dragging two women so… I’ll take a chance and if you are right, we win. If wrong, we are days behind. Would you care to wager on this?”
“If you are wrong, then you two return to England and we keep the gear and money.”
“And if she is right?”
“I put your husband’s welfare above my own.”
“Done and Done, Mr Harkins!” I pulled a knife from my belt and cut my palm then handed the blade to him, offering my hand. He sneered, “I’m no barbaric Irish! My word as an Englishman should be enough.”
That was the first time I came close to pushing that vile man over the edge. I even took a step forward but Ruth held me with a whisper “we need him” and I forced a smile. “It will do, Me Harkins,” I replied In a cold voice. A woman has a thousand ways to punish a man and I would explore them all.
Leaning over, I licked my wrist and held the wet skin over the opening that Ruth had chosen. “Mr Harkins, a moment please. Feel this.”
He licked his own wrist and commented, “Air! This opening is breathing! It opens to another place! He tried with the center opening and laughed. I fingered some marks cut into the rock at the opening, marks that could be natural but could also be carved by man and weathered after centuries of rain and ice, markings that a desperate man would take for a sign. “A dead end! The center shaft leads nowhere and these marks show the way! Let us descend into the bowels of the earth!”
While Samuel and Snorri conferred as to the best way to drop the gear to the bottom, Ruth and I placed strong leather gloves upon our delicate hands then strapped a belt about our waists. From the back of this belt was a loop which we passed between our legs to clip to the buckle at our bellies. Thus secured, we then looped our ropes to a convenient rock, passed this rope through a hole in the t-buckle and over the ‘t-crossbar’ and pulling this taught, we backed to the ledge. While leaning back, the rope holding us from falling, I called, “Mr Harkins, we shall see you at the bottom,” and as he yelled to us, “back away from that edge…” we leapt backwards and fell with scream.
Partway down, we pulled the dangling rope to slow our fall and as the rope tightened to cause us to fall into the side of the crater, we bent our legs to absorb the shock then pushed off again, releasing tension on the rope as we fell, It took some half dozen of such leaps before we reached the bottom some hundreds of feet below, Ruth laughing, “Mother that was so much fun! Can we do it again?”
Unfastening the rope from my t-buckle, I said back, “No doubt my sweetheart but this is NOT a race. Mr Harkins? Are you planning to spend the day and night up there or would you like to join us down here?”
“Mrs Obrien, you live?”
Ruth began to make ghostly sounds as I called back, “Join us and find out!”
“We’ll toss the packs. Stand back.”
“May I suggest that we tie the rope off and you slide them down the rope one-at-a-time?”
“An excellent suggestion, Mrs Obrien. Call when you are ready.”
I sent Ruth up the far side of the crater to tie the end of our rope to a convenient rock then we had a loop at the bottom to catch and slow the bags as they fell and tried to rise. “Whenever you are ready, Mr Harkins.”
The first one slid down, reached the bottom, almost dragging, then slid up the rope to the knot to slow, stop and drift back where we untied it. “Ready for the Second, Mr Harkins.” I called.
It took a very short time to get all the bags down. It took much longer for the six men to lower themselves by rope, not having the advantage of our repelling harness that I had had made. “An amazing invention, Mrs Obrien. Have you many more?”
“As many as I need, Mr Harkins. Though I believe the climb up will be far more difficult and much slower than the ride down. There are more of these shafts for we rest upon a ledge.” Had Samuel and the Icelanders our harness, we would have reached the bottom within an hour, instead we made so many of these descents, Ruth and I rushing on, then waiting for the men to catch up. Often they would find us napping or playing at chess to spend time. But when they reached our position on the last descent, I estimated at sea level after I counted the distance we had abselled and the number of times we changed ropes, we were ready to push on, we being rested as the men descended. It was that appearance of strength that was really being rested as the men descended that was to be our undoing for Samuel began to assume that we were stronger than we were.
“Ruth has found the cave down and a sign, if you will?”
Ruth showed him the rune carved into the rock. It looked like the letter “R”
“R?” Samuel asked. “Who the devil is ‘R’?”
“Not ‘R’, Mr Harkins, ‘Raidho’! Did you not say that the Way to the Interior was discovered by an Icelander, Arne Saknussemm, around 1500? Back then Iceland did not use the Latin Alphabet but preferred the Viking Runes! This is a Rune, not a letter.”
“And the difference being what? Mrs Obrien.”
“Letters are sounds. Runes are sounds or numbers or objects or symbols, all determined by context. Raidho is the ‘r’ sound but it also means ‘wagon’ and symbolized ‘journey’. If I wanted to mark my way, I’d use an arrow pointing the way I went or the way back. But a Viking wouldn’t do that, he’d carve this symbol to say ‘the journey goes this way’.”
“So your daughter was right and we are on the right trail. They,” he pointed back, “Are going to be very lost. Let’s pack up and move on.”
“Mr Harkins, shouldn’t we send a message to them so they don’t accidently get lost and die?”
“That, Miss Obrien, is not our concern. They take the same risks as do we and wouldn’t help us. Let us pack and move on!”
“Will you not reconsider warning the others?”
“I will not, Mrs Obrien. They would not assist us. Will my refusal alter our agreement?”
“Not at all, our agreement is to find my husband. Aiding the competition is simply a moral choice. I may not agree with you but will not argue. A lava shute. The trail shall be slippery but easy for some time I imagine.”
Lava often forced itself through cracks in the rock, melting its way through and forming round tunnels that could go for miles. Often they are straight but as often, they wind going as the path of least resistance allows. Thus this tube was going down at a decent angle to allow an easy walk, but it could easily change to vertical or horizontal at a moment. I felt the walls and they were smooth but cool. “Mr Harkins, have you ever been in a lava tube?”
“Many times, Mrs Obrien. Some are cold and filled with ice, others hot and filled with steam, often the hot and cold within feet of each other. Please watch your step.”
“We shall, Mr Harkins. I made certain that our boots were well soled for smooth rocks.” And with electric lanterns that required regular cranking to generate the glow, we passed for what seemed like hours though mica in the lava reflected our light so we could see much easier and farther ahead than if the tunnel had been pure lava. We mostly went down at an angle that changed from almost horizontal to almost vertical and in the latter, we drove a piton and lowered ourselves by rope the dozen or more feet to the next change. The tube appeared to twist about until I was certain that we were descending as a corkscrew straight down.
At one such drop, one of the Icelanders found a rusted piton. Too far gone to use but evidence of a prior visitor. This discovery made our host very happy and he would have danced had he room. “Proof! This proves that we are on the right track!”
I commented to Ruth in Romanian, “No it doesn’t. It only proves that someone came this way before. But was it a random explorer or Mr Saknussemm on his journey? And if it was driven by Saknussemm, was it on a blind exploration or on the true path.?”
“Mother, if he carved that Rune at the entrance, and if you are correct in the meaning, then this must be the way down. Wouldn’t he carve a different Rune at the wrong paths?”
“Probably, unless the tubes join further down which is often the case. For all we know, we shall meet Von Hardwigg at a joining of our caves, so let us assume that you are correct and that Mr Harkins knows his job.”
We slept twice and rested often as the heat dropped then climbed. Samuel explained during one rest, “This tube must be passing near lava or ice tubes. This would explain why the temperature changes so often.” Then he lectured as was his way about the density of the air increasing as we descended but we were climbing so slowly that we’d not notice until the air became as dense as water.
I asked Ruth, “Am I that pompous when I talk?”
“No mother, you make life interesting, his makes it dull and boring.”
“Arne Saknussemm discovered the way to the interior in the 16th century. He was persecuted for heresy and his writings burned in Copenhagen, thus we have no first hand accounts of the way in. Then Lidenbrock found his notes and descended seven years ago, to exit Stromboli crater in Italy. But two men at least entered and exited safely so can we.”
“Mr Harkins,” Ruth asked. “If these two people entered and exited safely, does this not mean that you will be third?”
He gave her a dirty look then added, “Miss Obrien, the Vikings first discovered America centuries before Columbus, yet it is Christopher Columbus who entered history. It is not always the first, but the one who returns and reports his findings that gets the credit.”
She turned to me and switched to Romanian, “So, our host has already lost the race yet seeks some way to justify his continued running?”
I laughed back, “Exactly. And the fact the Both Paul and I spent a year inside the Hollow Earth and the fact that Paul is within right now is carefully ignored by his ego. No matter, I never sought fame so allow the fool his glory. I will be happy enough to lie within Paul’s arms again.”
“I wonder why the others chose that other crater?” I said in English.
“Does it matter, Mrs Obrien?” Samuel replied without interest.
“I am a woman with a woman’s curiosity. I dislike unsolved mysteries for even a minor missing detail will spoil the meal. They hesitated not, they climbed, they camped then descended and they continued on. They had a reason, Mr Harkins. I wonder why.”
Samuel dismissed my questions with a wave. It was enough that we were on the right trail. For me, I wondered why the others sought to descend into that chimney? Were there two entrances? I recalled a theory that the Earth was like swiss cheese or a sponge with many caverns and tunnels all over the world. The dinosaurs in Brazil discovered by Maple White or those in Mexico by that American Circus or the ones in central Africa could not be survivals. No creature lives that long. Most die long before a century, a few like some whales and turtles can life for almost 400 years but millions? Never! And any land small enough to remain undiscovered could not contain a breeding population of dinosaurs. Especially when you consider how much a single elephant consumes in a day. Multiply that by a dozen times its mass then by enough dinosaurs to breed without inbreeding extinction and it becomes clear that the dinosaurs observed in Mexico and Brazil and Africa are not natives, but travelers… from the Hollow world below.
Thus, the theory went, there were many entrances to the Inner World and what living dinosaurs we see are simply those that wandered into a cave and got lost, to eventually exit upon the surface of the Earth. Jason had read a paper on that so perhaps both of these craters entered the Hollow Earth with a different explorer finding a different way down similar to one volcano spewing lave through many vents in the same cone.
We stopped for dinner, having hiked through lunch and as the Icelanders cooked our meal, Ruth and I excused ourselves and walked up the tube some ways until we were lost in the dark. I wished privacy for when we voided our bowls and found a slight dip that would prevent our urine from flowing to the dining spot. “Mother, I do so hope we return by a different path.”
I laughed at that, “I f we get lost, we can always follow our scat back to the surface.”
“or follow the other explorers down by our noses,” she laughed with me.
Then we returned to the group to pass the bearers who appeared to have the same thoughts. At least their laughter up the tube showed that they had found our own toilet.
We ate in silence save one question, “Mr Harkins, how long do you think this tube will run?”
“I have no idea, Mrs Obrien. Perhaps around the next bend, perhaps days of hard travel.” And so after eating, we cleaned our teeth as best as possible, water being too valuable to waste on even a sponge-bath, and then moving a bit down the tunnel, lay our packs to form a barrier of sorts and removing our clothes, slept on a blanket in relative privacy.
We awoke with the call of Samuel who was shouting for us to get dressed. I was half into my pants before I realized that the only way he could know we were naked (safe for a light shift) was if he approached to wake us, saw our near nudity and returned to the group to shout us awake. I chose to ignore that unpleasant thought and once dressed in a new set of clothing to allow the previous day’s attire to air, we joined the group for breakfast and another day of travel. Samuel and our Icelandic guides wore the same clothes each day and we needed not our lamps to follow, just our noses.
All day we performed that mind-numbing walk. We strode down, ever down, sometimes driving a piton and climbing down a rope, rarely level, and would break only when Samuel felt tired. Neither Ruth nor I dared make any request for rest, fearing that he’d take that as an admission of weakness and send us back so on we walked, dead to the world and asleep on our feet. At the rare rests, we would collapse and not even remove our packs. Goddess! I had thought that I was in good shape and would walk him into the ground.
“Tired, Mrs Obrien?” he asked on the fourth day.
“Very much, Mr Harkins. But I will confess that I wish that you had taken the opportunity to bring a change of clothes for the single outfit you wear reeks of sweat!”
Ruth laughed and offered in her native tongue, “And when it falls apart from that sweat, we can watch him naked, a sight that will force us to lead the way.”
It was near the end of the second day (according to Samuel’s watch) that we left the lava tube and found a crack in the wall. The tube continued but to the right the wall broke as if the heat had touched cold and shattered. Samuel peered within using his electric torch and asked, “Now which way?”
We searched around and finally one of the Icelanders found the mark, partially covered by limestone. By now both Ruth and I could understand much of what they said though we had difficulty speaking. Despite my partial Danish ancestry, thanks to the Viking invasions of my native land, I had difficulty with the Nordic languages. Iceland speaks Icelandic, a form of Old Norse though Danish is also spoken and English is making onroads. Still, when we arrived in the island, I was often mistaken for being Danish because of my stature and hair which caused confusion before I could convince the locals that I didn’t understand their speech.
But the mark was there, another “R” carved into the entrance to the crack with a “H” for Hagalaz carved on the floor of the tunnel. “Mrs Obrien, what does this mean?” Samuel asked.
“Haglaz, Hailstones. Danger I believe.”
“Then, Mrs Obrien, We shall enter that cavern.”
“I agree, Mr Harkins. I am so tired of this tube.” I wasn’t even curious about the danger ahead, I was so tired.
Forcing ourselves in, the Icelanders struggling through the narrowness but Ruth entering easily, I commented, “Water! Stalactites and Stalagmites. All formed by water dripping through limestone. There is a seabed above our heads Mr Harkins.”
“I hope it remains there. Your knowledge of arcane facts is little short of amazing.”
“I read a great deal, Mr Harkins and I listen for men love to talk about their work. I wonder if this is a dry or wet cave? I hope the latter.”
“And why is that, other than our water reserves are running low.”
“I could use a bath. Mr Harkins, and so do you.”
“What is that smell?” Ruth asked.
“Ammonia!” Samuel sniffed. “Have you ever been in a bat cave?”
“I try to avoid them, Mr Harkins,” I commented.
“Bat caves smell like this… the waste from the bats collects on the floor and generates ammonia and guano that is mined for fertilizer and gunpowder. Yet,” he scanned the uneven floor with his lantern then raised it high, “I see neither bat nor guano.”
I turned to Ruth who was standing there with her eyes closed, then she opened them, ‘No bats. No bugs. Nothing!”
“What else generates that smell?” I asked.
“Many things, but nothing that should exist down here. Let’s move on.”
The cavern was large, but not in the soap-bubble large sense. More like the ‘lots of caves and smaller caverns that are interconnected large’ and we soon lost our way until Samuel had the Icelanders stand one in sight of the opening with a lantern and another at the limits of sight. And so we created a human chain of light. Samuel found another tunnel, more like an elongated cave with smooth floor but rocks on ceiling and walls and he suggested, “this way!.”
“Do you see the Rune?” I asked.
“No need, Mrs Obrien. This is the only way.”
Ruth froze, then backed away. “no..” she whispered. “Bad.”
“I think we should search further, Mr Harkins.”
“I lit a match and there is a breeze from this tunnel. It’s also where the ammonia stink originates. Come along.”
We watched the group enter then followed. The alternative being to remain behind. “One moment, Mr Harkins,” I called as Ruth and I pulled from our packs a series of poles that we assembled into a seven-foot shaft each. On the end we stuck our hollow-handle belt knives. Then, as we walked with spears in hand, the roof and walls became narrower until we were crouching. We almost bumped into the group who was waiting ahead. “What?”
“Look!” he said, his lantern showing something white stretching across the floor. He and I approached until we saw a white string from wall to wall. There were more ahead.
Samuel took my spear and touched the string. Instantly a large spider ran from concealment along the string. Its body was the size of my fist with legs so long that it was easily a foot long and 8” across. Samuel killed it with my spear then flung the thing ahead to strike another web. Another spider ran out to attack the body and then dragged it back to hiding.
“Well, they don’t seem to be very many of them so if we are careful…” And he stepped over the first then the second web and continued on. The rest of the men followed. I looked to Ruth and asked, “Is this?”
She nodded and said, “I can control them, I think. But there are so many….”
“Just be careful sweety.”
The further we went, the lower the roof until we had to separate Ruth’s spear into two smaller crutches to avoid falling over. Then we bumped into Sorri who whispered, “Up ahead a bundle, like spider prey but larger than a man.”
I worked my way to the front to see Samuel peering, the lantern hanging from the tip of my spear. “I still can’t see but it’s huge.”
The Icelanders talked then one moved past, carefully stepping over the webs until he was almost kneeling over the body. He tapped on it then worried at the web until he called back, “Human. A man. Desiccated like a dried husk found in the icy wind. He must have tripped over the webbing. There is another one ahead.” All this Ruth and I now understood but Samuel had to hear from our guide who translated. The man had the typical British and American view that the world should learn his language and so he was totally ignorant of my Gaelic, Ruth’s Romanian or our host’s Icelandic-Danish though he spoke dead Latin fluently. The man at the body moved then before anyone could scream, a spider far larger than the others, a body the size of a football and legs a foot long ran out. It stopped in attack position inches from the man as Ruth whispered, “We must leave.” She could hold that monster all day if she had to but why force her. Then it moved an inch as she began to sweat. “There are so many… hungry… eight eyes… I see through countless groups of eight eyes.” she mumbled.
By then most of us had left but the one at the furthest in stepped on a web trying to avoid three of the monsters. Two broke Ruth’s spell and before she could stop them, they had sunk their fangs into his leg. Then they ran back under her mental control. “I’m sending them images of a giant spider… hurry.”
The bit man took three steps then froze.. shuddered and began to shake, disturbing strings and Ruth was hard put to stop the spiders that fought to follow them all. One of the Icelanders turned back to help his friend and they almost made it out until the first collapsed, dragging his friend down onto a dozen strings. A dozen spiders ran out to stop, frozen then the second screamed and beat at his legs. All the men broke and ran save Ruth who fought to keep them away, me and Samuel who approached to fetch them. Then the giants arrived, biting the men and then freezing as Ruth took control.
“It’s too late Ruth, they are both dead, just hold them off while we escape.” I told her.
We moved back, more spiders approaching us then we broke and ran, dragging the child with us.
At the opening, we collapsed, Ruth crying in Romanian, “I tried. Too many. I saw through their eight eyes. Hungry… so vicious… I tried.. I….”
I held her, stroking her hair, “That’s ok baby, mommy’s here. Shhh, sweety, everything will be ok. Let mommy take care of you,” as she whimpered.
I barely heard the Icelanders swear in anger. “We couldn’t see the bodies but knew they were here.” Finally Snorri brushed away some dust crying, “Here it is!”
“Mrs Obrien, It’s ok, even the strongest men would run in terror at those monsters. There is nothing wrong with your daughter being so scared.”
I wanted to slap that man’s face off screaming into the hollow shell of his skull… ‘You fecking gobshite of an idiot! Ruth saved us all by controlling those spiders so we could escape. You are so lucky she was able to stop most of them.’ Instead I asked, “What does it look like?
“The ‘H’ and a stick with a sideways v..”
“A thorn on a stick?”
“Exactly, Mrs Obrien. What does it mean?”
“Thorn or giant. Hagalaz and Thurisaz. Danger or giant. Giant danger that captures.”
“Couldn’t he had just said ‘giant spiders ahead’?” Samuel asked, angry with the loss of two of our men.
“I believe he did, Mr Harkins. I believe that he did.”
Snorri was arguing with his countrymen and finally said,. “The others return. I go with you but not them.” They left, taking some of the supplies but leaving most with us. I never learned if they made it out. And now we were four. Samuel Harkins, Snorri Sigurdssen, Ruth and myself.
“Mrs Obrien, you should go back with them and take your daughter. She shouldn’t stay here.”
“NO!” she screamed. “Mother, please don’t.”
“Mr Harkins, we still must find my husband. We shall continue on.”
“Is there anything I can say to dissuade you?”
“There is, Mr Harkins. Tell me that you found my husband on the other side of that pillar.” He actually looked.
Looking around, Snorri found two more openings, one with the “H-Th” rune and one with the “R” rune. As we prepared for the entrance to the correct tunnel, I asked, now calmer, “Mr Harkins, that spider tunnel DID lead someplace. The tunnel narrowed but it did continue on. Something comes from that tunnel up that shaft to this cavern. Something worth those spiders laying in wait. I do wonder what it is?”
“Mrs Obrien, if you wish to face that horror to see what lies beyond, I promise by God’s Grace, that I shall bind you and your daughter and carry you kicking and screaming to the surface.”
“Still, I dislike an unanswered mystery.”
“I imagine that you have gotten yourself into a lot of trouble with that feline curiosity, Mrs Obrien.”
“More than you can imagine, Mr Harkins. And often to my dismay and regret. Who shall lead?”
“I will,” he stated, “with Snorri in the rear and you two between where we may protect you.” Then he added, “Snorri went into the other tunnel a bit and found it opens into a coal vein. So rest your curiosity.”
An hour into this and we found coal deposits then more coal until we were in a large cavern of coal that had been opened up by a vast quake. “We are far from the volcanoes of Iceland,” Samuel commented, “else this coal would have burned with the heat of the magma. This is probably the same one as the other tunnel but leads elsewhere.”
“Mr Harkins,” I called to him. “Do not coal miners carry canaries into the depts. To test for noxious fumes?”
“They do, Mrs Obrien, but without such warning, we can only pray.”
After another hour the crack in the coal ended at a solid wall of granite. For a brief moment Samuel was tempted to blow a hole in the wall with a stick of dynamite that he carried and risk a coal fire but sanity returned and after another hour of futile searching, the two men gave up and we began the arduous task of reclaiming the distance lost. “I cannot understand it, the Rune said to go this way.” He muttered then called out, “HERE! Look a falling of the coal. It hid the path!” and with some work, we cleared enough of that opening to pass and following it, soon reached the granite wall that led us ever downward.
“How long do you think that crack was filled,” I asked our host.
“Not long, Mrs Obrien. It was cleared quite easily and so must have fallen within weeks, perhaps days. It is quite probable that it was open when your husband passed and sealed later.”
“Why do you suppose? The volcano has been extinct since the 1500s.”
He shrugged, “This volcano may be extinct but occasionally I feel the rumblings through the rock of others that remain active. Something happened, the roof fell and we cleared it. Is it important?”
“Only in that I dislike a mystery.”
We followed that new opening until we felt the temperature rise. Steam was ahead and was condensing along the walls to run to the floor and then downwards. “The walls are quite hot,” Samuel commented as he pressed his hand to the sides.
We moved forward in the humidity, I laughing, “Ruth, your sister would often pay a great deal for a steam room like this as we rested in Strapi. And here we have the benefit of steam and exercise. The excess pounds shall melt away and we will be as thin as a French fashion model.”
“Those models, mother, are far too skinny. They need some meat upon their bones.”
“I agree. But that is what sells. Be glad that neither of us must starve ourselves to attract a man.” I laughed back. “Though this steam is ruining my hair.”
“Not to mention our clothes,” she said. It was true, all of us were dripping and soaked and I feared heatstroke. So hot was I that I was forced to loosen my brassier and shirt for the men had long ago accomplished that very feat. I did have a wish that I was wearing light silk over coarse and heavy linen and I also wished that one of the men would offer to carry my backpack, but the agreement was that we would carry our own and so we suffered.
The floor was slick with run-off and the temperature steadily rose until we could barely see through the steam. “Have you any suggestions, Mr Harkins?” I asked.
He thought a moment then suggested, “Remain here while I explore.” And then left us to vanish in the steam.
Shortly we heard him swear as if he were a sailor and picking ourselves from the dry areas we found, rushed forward.
When we arrived, we found a jet of steaming water rushing from a hole in the wall, to condense and run down the corridor. What we suffered was the hot steam rushing upward. Samuel was swearing again, throwing pieces of rock down the corridor that was covered with running water.
“These rocks!” he shouted. “They are freshly broken. And look! Marks of a pick! Someone was here before and opened this wall to the water.”
We searched and carved into the rock, hidden by the steam was this inscription in German, ‘Hansbach, cut by Hans Bielke on 10 July 1863’ “Hans Beilke?” I asked. “Isn’t that the same guide that Von Hardwigg hired? I recall the Governor said that Lidenbrock first hired Hans when he entered the volcano the year this hole was dug. So now Von Hardwigg has a guide who knows the way.”
“Nei,” spoke Snorri. “Hans speaks little, follows much. If Von Hardwigg goes wrong way, Hans will follow.”
Samuel laughed at this, “A guide who won’t guide! What a joke! Then we are still in the race.”
We let him rant for awhile then I asked, “Do we have time to take advantage of this hot water to wash our clothes?”
His glare made me counter-offer, “Then we must be certain to catch up with them as they rest.” Initially, the steamy water sprayed the opposite wall and as the steam moved uphill, it soaked the walls and ceiling to condense and run to the floor, creating a stream down the center and making both wall and floor slick.
Although most steam rushed upwards, enough went down to soak the walls and ceiling along our path and this caused a danger as we descended. After some feet, the steam vanished and the walls dried as the water ran down the center of the tunnel, sometimes as a quick narrow torrent, other times as a broad river and always there were rapids and falls. It was an outerworld river in miniature determined by the features of the floor of the tunnel, but always, slick and dangerous.
And so we followed for two days, the first night Ruth and I washing our clothes up-stream with Snorri following suit until even Samuel was forced to take time to wash. To be honest, he did this once and as he only has one set of clothing, hid until they were dry enough to wear and never washed them again.
Occasionally we found the remains of the meals of they whom we followed and once, their toilet. We had to go slow, despite Samuel’s insistence, for the water was made the walking slippery and dangerous and more than once, one of us would slip and fall. One occasion, Samuel himself slipped and was carried down the tunnel for some distance into the darkness until we heard a scream. He had struck a rock in the floor that had prevented further progress and when we carefully reached him, he was sitting on the side of the tunnel, well soaked and rubbing his thigh.
Finally we reached a crevasse into which the stream fell. The thing was huge and the sides rough but Samuel commented that they formed a staircase of sorts “It’s beautiful,” Ruth commented.
“That it is,” Samuel added, rubbing his thigh. I believed that he was thinking how lucky we was to have struck that rock else he’d be falling with the water into that bottomless crevasse. He quickly found the “R” rune and we prepared to proceed into the depths of the Earth.
Taking those moments to eat and relax, for Samuel insisted that we rest no more than an hour, I removed my boots to dry them and my socks and my feet, laved my body under my shirt with a damp rag then removed a vial with which I began to polish my nails.
Samuel stared a moment then commented, “a woman and her vanity…”
I never even glanced up, replying, “You relax in your manner and I shall in mine.”
“Your daughter, Mrs Obrien,” he continued. “What in heaven’s name is she doing?”
Glancing up a moment, I explained, “Tai Chi. An exercise and Martial Art from China. I encourage her to learn for exercise, meditation and self defense.”
“Self defense? Down here? Are you expecting to be attacked by Von Hardwigg or Liddenbrock?”
“Any woman, Mr Harkins, is only three-quarters as strong as any man. To survive we must remain at home, protected by men or learn to defend ourselves. Tai Chi, like Karate and Ju-Jitsu, are ways a smaller person may survive attack by a larger. Shall I demonstrate?”
“Please do, Mrs Obrien but how any Oriental fighting could be better than good old English Boxing eludes me.”
I stood then asked him to grasp my wrist. “I do not intend to fight you, Mr Harkins, just injure you enough to allow me to escape.” Then I push-and-jerked and was instantly free. “Care to try again?”
The second was the same as the first then I held both hands out and he took them in a grip that left bruises for a day or more. This time I snapped free, then stepped forward slamming my heel onto the tops of his foot as I turned and struck him with the back of my fist. I stopped a fraction of an inch before his nose and only stomped his foot with enough force to let him know what I had done, then stepped back quickly. “Had I used full force, Mr Harkins, I would have broken your nose and the bones in your foot, allowing me to easily run away from your anger.”
Ruth laughed with Snorri then returned to her exercise. I motioned him to grab her from behind and when he did so, that six-and-a-half foot tall Icelander found himself grasped and tossed over the shoulder of a girl barely five foot tall as she fell to her knees and almost punched his throat.
I clapped my hands and called, “Excellent, my love, but next time, rake his shin to cause more pain and never forget to run as soon as possible.”
“Yes mother. Are you well?” she asked Snorri in Icelandic.
“Ja,” he laughed and held his hand to her. She took it to assist him to rise but he pulled her and laughed as she fell onto him. She lay on top of the man for some time, staring into his eyes before Samuel cleared his throat and broke their spell. Well, so long as she realized that it was only play and did not become pregnant, I would allow her her fun.
Laughing, we continued with our packing and headed down that gargantuan shaft, following the waterfall created by the previous team.
The going down wasn’t difficult, though neither was it easy and for three days we descended into that abyss. We slept when we could find an area large enough though I admit that I feared rolling to my doom were I to toss and turn in my sleep. Fortunately, we found no area large enough for all to sleep together and so slept and rested spread up and down nature’s stairwell. Once I climbed down to find Samuel peeing over the side into the stream laughing as he did. “Drink this, you bastard!” I could barely make out his form and so returned to Ruth and suggested that we refill our canteens only when we had Samuel Harkins in sight and clothed and below us.
For days we descended, rushed by Samuel who swore at the group ahead often whenever he found evidence of their trail but we continued on at a, to my mind, dangerous pace. And, on a number of occasions, one of us would slip and fall, almost going over the edge, to be saved only because Snorri had tied us all together. These incidents only inflamed Samuel who was upset at the time it took to save the unfortunate. “Perhaps, Mr Harkins,” I suggested, “were we to go slower and more carefully, we could avoid the time lost to rescue?”
He just glared in the lamplight and rushed on. And so the lower we climbed, the more often the missteps became as we became more and more exhausted and made more and more mistakes.
We slept only when Samuel was exhausted and awoke to a cold meal eaten on foot as he complained us awake. And so we endured that hell until as the abyss changed direction from down to a slope, I confronted Samuel for my patience was long gone, “MISTER HARKINS!” I snapped, looking up to him. “ We are all exhausted. A dozen times we came near to falling to our deaths. My feet hurt, my back hurts, I am starving and faint with hunger. If you persist in this madness, then do so without us. We, Ruth and I, shall rest here for a day or more until we can continue on. Then we shall follow as best we can. Leave us if you will but at least be so kind as to mark your trail!” I knew he would refuse to rest, he barely listened to my words.
He sputtered, raved about the group ahead and through it all I stared at him as if he were a servant I wished to beat. Finally he stated, “Very well, Mrs Obrien, if you cannot continue on, ….” He paused, looked around and continued in a rush, “then remain here and catch up when you are able!” then he turned and the two were gone!
“Dammit!” I swore. “I thought I had him.” I took a deep breath, my wet shirt clinging to my frame, then sighed, “Ruth, sweety, set camp and we shall regain our strength and move on alone.”
“Mother, can we? Do you know how to travel underground?”
“I suppose that we shall learn, my dear. I suppose that we must learn.”
As we set our dinner out, Ruth asked, “I am surprised that Mr Sigurdssen left with Mr Harkins.”
“Mr Harkins pays Mr Sigurdssen’s wages.”
“With the money you gave him, mother!”
“He does, but still the money comes out of Mr Harkins’ pocket and not our purses.”
“Sometimes, mother, you are so… nice. If I could I’d infest his clothing with fleas and crickets.”
I have no idea as to how long we remained there, resting. We removed our boots and clothes, washed them in the stream and lay them on rocks to dry as we slept for a very long time in our shifts. We awoke when refreshed, ate, talked and slept some more. But as for time…
We had packed: socks, medical supplies, canteen, enough lipstick and mascara for a year, more socks, soap, journal and pen & ink, change of clothes, sewing materials, electric torches, food, still more socks, revolver and ammunition, our knives and many other necessities but the one thing that I forgot, was a watch. And this far underground, time was determined by the pocket watch carried by Samuel Harkins. But established by his desire to eat and sleep and awake regardless of the face of his timepiece.
We did have plenty of water and found a depression that filled so were enjoying a bath when we heard a sound as of something scraping upon the rocks. “Mother” Ruth whispered.
“I hear. Fetch our weapons as I attract their attention.” And I began to sing as I splashed in the dim light. We were saving our bulbs and lanterns so kept them low. Since Ruth could not sense the visitors, they could not be animals for Ruth could sense and control animals and insects and birds. It made things nice for she would send away any vermin in the area and we never suffered the fleas and ticks that other travelers endured.
But there were worse things underground than bugs. The Fey lived here and Knockers and Kobolds and other such creatures shared the caves with demons and the occasional humans trapped underground and long gone mad. There were stories of a reptilian race of Nagas that had come from the stars and, abandoned by their fellows, had moved underground to take humans as slaves. Other stories told of people driven underground to escape danger and trapped, grew blind and pallid and mad, consuming the flesh of whatever bugs they caught enhanced by the occasional explorer who fell into their clutches. And here was I, unarmed and naked, my Japanese wakazashi and my British revolver with our packs.
“Mrs Obrien,” a familiar voice called.
Rolling over, I called back, “Is that you Mr Harkins?”
“It is. I… I apologize for leaving you as I did. It was beastly of me and I beg your forgiveness.”
“I suppose that your reasons felt proper and thank you for returning. Ruth and I are rested and ready to continue if…”
“If, Mrs Obrien? More conditions?”
“Just one, Mr Harkins. Would you and Mr Sigurdssen please turn away that I may dress?”
I didn’t need light to know that they both were embarrassed, Snorri less so for Icelanders often bathed in hot springs ignoring the sex of their companions. The British, like we Irish, were far less cosmopolitan. But they turned around and left me to leave the pool, naked as the day I was born, and then I dried and returned to our nearby camp to dress.
“He came back!”
“I suspect that it was more because he became lost and needed us. Still, we will not present those thoughts and be grateful that we have regained our guides.” Then I whispered, “But if we find any fleas along the journey…” She laughed at the thought and soon we both were dressed and calling to Samuel, “Mr Harkins, you may attend. We are packing our kit and will be ready shortly.”
“As you wish, Mrs Obrien. May we beg a bite of your left-over meal?”
“Please help yourselves.” I offered. “Though I confess that I have been adding to our meals that which is better left unknown and am considering boiling my shoes. I gather that your provisions are gone?” He nodded, thus the mystery of his return, starvation. We would have to find food soon and not the bugs that Ruth had been calling for our stews. Then we adjusted our knives and revolvers at our hips, and rolled our bedding as they ate.
Despite our agreement, Samuel rushed us and we allowed this, and as the path was smooth and we had plenty of water, we emptied our canteens to lighten our load and in a week, resting when necessary, not desired, we entered a vast grotto. Along the way, Ruth would often walk with Snorri and one I saw them holding hands, mourning for the lack of privacy of the tunnel.
It was here at the grotto that our good fortune deserted us. Not that we were attacked by monsters or giant insects or such, it was that our relatively smooth travel became very rough and we spent more time climbing up and down than forward. Often Snorri would climb ahead, tie a rope off and we’d cross some crack tied to a fragile bit of hemp. This exhausted us and lasted for days and days uncounted, and we continued only because at odd times, we would find the Runes carved to show us the way. Some indicated danger, others blocked passages but it was the “R” that we followed faithfully. I also noticed that despite the foods that I had carefully packed to prevent such problems, we began to suffer the lack of vitamins C and D and I feared scurvy.
Finally we reached a place where we were able to rest and as the lanterns were turned off to save our torches, Ruth commented… “Mother, I hear something.” We had been underground nearly a month and I was wanting for even an overcast Irish day.
“What?” I asked. Cranky from lack of the Sun, though Samuel put it down to ‘woman’s issues, from which I never suffered.
“I’m not certain. Maybe breathing, maybe wind.”
“Do you sense any animal?”
“None, Lady. But I rarely sense people so mayhaps there are monsters down here that I cannot influence.”
“I suggest then, that you check your revolver and knife. Mr Harkins?”
“Yes, Mrs Obrien,” he replied, sleep in his voice.
“Ruth hears something as if a wind or breathing. And notice that glow in the distance?”
He was awake instantly. “Shhh, it may be Von Harwiggs torches you see! Wait here and I’ll explore. We may have caught up with them.”
We heard Samuel walk off, his boots on the rocks, Ruth asking, “Isn’t that dangerous? What if the others we saw racing to the summit are as adamant as is our Mr Harkins?”
“Perhaps, my love,” I cautioned, “But I doubt that it will come to more than a few blows. Even fame isn’t worth murder. But if that glow indicates Nagas or Fey, then we are at grave risk.”
Moments later, or perhaps hours for in that stygian darkness we could tell no time and moments would seem like forever, Samuel returned laughing. “What is it, Mr Harkins?” I asked the light from his lantern.
“Everything, Mrs Obrien. Sleep for we shall need all our strength in the morning.” He placed at our feet some massively large mushrooms that we both ate with the relish of the starving.
Shrugging, I whispered, “place your revolver under your pillow and loosen your knife and have it handy. It there are Nagas, then they may be immune to your powers and possess similar abilities upon humans for Samuel may be under their control.”
“Shouldn’t we set a guard?”
“If Mr Harkins is calm, then I believe we have little to fear. But if he cautions us on the strength we shall need, then sleep we must have. Good night my love.”
“Good night mother.”
In the morning, we awoke to Samuel actually making breakfast, a chore he generally relegated to women. “Ah, awake I see. Snorri has gone ahead to explore and as soon as you are fed and ready, so shall we. Tea?”
We moved into the gloom to adjust our clothes for we had slept in our clothing, unlike previous ‘nights’. “You are in a very good mood today.” I commented, adjusting my brassier.
“Very! This alone will make my name famous. Tell me, Mrs Obrien, you said that your first husband, the Duke, owned a fleet of ships?”
”He did. Often would he become angry when he found me working in the shipyards alongside the peasants for I dearly love the sight as ship under sail and working on such a vessel is close to paradise. I would also look over and write his business contracts, for Alexii was illiterate and could barely sign his own name.”
He laughed, then called, “Come, come, we are wasting daylight. Eat quickly!” This was the old Samuel Harkins pushing to the fore.
We ate as quickly as we could, avoiding wolfing the meal as Samuel gathered our things for us. “I apologize for manhandling your belongings but I cannot wait. Please, follow the glow when you are able.” And he left immediately.
“What a curious action?” I commented.
“Whatever is at that glow must be important. Do you think he murdered the other searchers and wishes time to hide their bodies?”
“I certainly hope not for then we would be placed in the position of choosing to arrest and drag the two back the way we came, or execute them on the spot for our own safety.”
I sipped my tea, so unlike Jason who would have rushed to see. But a possession of a weaker woman’s body forced me to take my time and evaluate the situation. Ruth, however, was anxious and packed the stove and bedding so I finished my tea, clipped my tinned cup to my pack and lifting the load, we moved into the light.
What we saw took away our breaths. We passed through a narrow opening to find ourselves blinded by the light and when we could see, we stood upon a rocky beach backed by a cliff. But some 200 yards ahead the rocks had turned to sand and then, .. a sea! The water stretched forever! It was gently lapping the sand and to the right and left the cliff towered to meet the roof of this mega-cavern. We felt the breeze, a welcome sensation and occasionally, the cliff or walls would move to the sea as if they were ranges of hills to break the smoothness. The sight was, after our long days and weeks in the caves, beautiful.
Looking up we saw the source of the brightness. The very clouds themselves were ablaze with lightening and flashes constantly.
“Like a thunderstorm that never breaks
Brilliance of the sky, our needs awaits
Illuminating this hidden vastness of the sea
Awaiting the touch of explorers, you and me!”
“You are a poet, Mrs Obrien?” Mr Harkins offered.
“A poor one at best. It’s beautiful, far more than my feeble words could describe.” We walked forward to the water.
“The water is fresh but salty, and look at these shells, Ammonites! Trilobites! Extinct on the outer world for millions of years, but here, fresh! What other wonders will we find?” he motioned to the ceiling, hundreds to thousands of feet overhead, “Millions of years ago, that ceiling rent open and the sea above rushed in, bringing with it the beasts from above. Then the opening sealed, trapping here, those creatures destined to become extinct upon the surface of the world when Noah built his ark.”
“I was unaware that you were religious,” I commented.
“How an anyone not gaze upon such wonder and deny the existence of God?”
I whispered, fearing inquisition, or worse, preaching, “or the Goddess!”
“Womb of Mother Earth,
Keeping safe life
Drowned by Your son’s ire.”
“I don’t understand the imagery, Mrs Obrien,” Samuel asked.
Snorri laughed and replied in Icelandic, “We also recognize the Mother Goddess but we call her Frigga and still make sacrifices to her.”
“Mother, if these still live, could not the greater beasts of the past also survive?”
“I’m counting on that, Miss Obrien,” Samuel called back as he ran to the sea.
I smelled the air, “Fresh! A welcome change after breathing the musky caverns. I had forgotten what real air smells like. I wonder if it will rain?” I had seen buildings so large within that rain clouds formed.
I found an area where the water lapped to the shore and tasted the water.. “salt” then I scared a living trilobite. Jason discovered a Sirrush and giant Triceratops in the Congo, a Diplovertebron and a yard-long scarlet centipede in Japan and a megalodon in the waters off Australia. I caught the hand-sized living fossil and lifting it, saw the dozens of legs waving beneath. Then, carefully, set it back and watched it shoot across the bottom into the sea.
I dropped my pack and rushed to my child, having pulled my Japanese short sword from the pack as I lost the weight. Running to her voice, I slowed, and then stopped. Ruth was standing in the sand, looking at a forest of white trees.
But what a forest, each plant was not a tree but a mushroom of gigantic size. Easily ten yards high and growing so close together that no light could penetrate beneath. The floor, as far as I could see, was composed of rotting fungus and moved slowly in the darkness.
Snorri was happily munching on a smaller mushroom that was growing away from the forest and I resolved to observe the man for ill effects before I consumed any. “Mother, it’s… it’s…”
“Yes it is! The floor moves!”
“Crickets, mother. Millipedes, other insects. Would you like to see?” and before I could respond, she raised her arm and seconds later a number of giant insects appeared. Not large enough to be a threat but the crickets were easily a couple inches long, the millipedes a yard. They moved slowly weighed down by the rule that if you double the size of an animal, you double its strength but the weight increases four times. It doesn’t take much growth to crush an insect under the weight of its own mass. These were larger than on the outer world and only the density of the atmosphere allowed them to breathe, but they could neither hop nor run and crawled slowly about. Ruth waved and the bugs returned to their feast.
“I wonder what eats these?” I asked. Ruth shrugged, not able to detect any other creatures.
“Stand back, Mrs Obrien,” Samuel called out.
“They seem harmless,” I replied.
“Perhaps, but..” he picked up a sizable rock and threw it to the stem of a giant and as it struck, a cloud of spores fell down, to cause us to retreat from the cloud lest we suffocate.
“Thank you for the warning and demonstration,” I called. “I hesitate to ask, but have you observed any signs of humanity?”
“That I have, Mrs Obrien, that I have. Over there, I found the R-Rune facing across the sea. And here, signs of a raft constructed and launched so recently that the marks in the sand remain. He is less than hours ahead.”
I saw also the chopped trunks of mushrooms that had provided the poles for the raft. “I don’t think those mushroom stems will remain afloat for long. Any raft built of such material will be slow and difficult to maneuver and barely able to float thirty or forty miles before sinking.” Then added, “I find your happiness at being so far behind to be.. at odds with your previous determination.”
“Not at all, Mrs Obrien. As you said, a raft is a poor craft to take upon that sea. And I possess something that they do not. Something that shall allow me to overtake the others.!”
“And what is that, Mr Harkins?”
“Me? I fail to understand.”
“Oh Mrs Obrien, you understand all too well. This entire trip you have been listening, making suggestions that indicate that your knowledge is far greater than mine. Your former husband was a shipping magnate, and according to your occasional comments you near ran his businesses and investigated every aspect of his life. So I conclude that you know far more about many subjects than you let on. I also conclude that you possess the knowledge to build a true boat that can easily overtake and pass that poor raft that was made from semi-fossilized woods and the stems of these giants.”
“Easier said than done, Mr Harkins. I can and have made boats that were able to cross an ocean, but I had tools. Today we possess your axe, my short sword and a few knives. I can, but it will take time.”
“How much?” now he was sounding like the Samuel Harkins I knew.
“It depends on the materials. Let us explore for resources. Note all that you see, grasses for rope, woods and plants, reeds, inventory everything if you would.”
He nodded and left with Snorri while Ruth and I explored on our own, each taking a different direction.
I picked up a bone, probably a thigh bone, then tossed it aside. The ground was littered with ammonite shells, trilobite casts, bones and the occasional shark tooth. “Paul would love this beach,” I commented.
“Perhaps, mother, he does. Look ahead!”
There was a hut, thatched above the tide-line and resembling… I caught my breath and forced myself to not run, then muttered, ‘fuck-it!’ and ran with all my strength, Ruth following.
I burst into the hut to find no one. But the walls resembled the ones I had built in Pellucidar, down to the triple-layer grass walls. The furniture wasn’t much and primitive to the extreme but then… I picked up the shirt and smelled the sweaty musk of my husband. “He’s here!”
“Phillip? Dr Paul!” Ruth called out as I joined her. But nothing.
“He’s here!” I insisted. “Jut out exploring. He’s like that, digging some bone from the earth and forgetting all about time. Quickly, we must recover our packs and ready dinner for the man.”
We were happily cleaning and readying the hut, me putting extra attention to the bed, when we heard Samuel outside calling. “Von Hardwigg? Liedenbrock? Is that you? Damn you! Come out!”
I went to the door, “Welcome to our home, Mr Harkins. Would you like to come in?”
“Mrs Obrien!? What are you doing here?”
“This, Mr Harkins, is the hut built by my husband. Don’t worry, I shall keep my promise to you as soon as he returns.”
“How can you be certain? That shirt you carry could be that of a thousand men.”
“Mr Harkins, have you ever been in love? I have spent many a night with my nose in Paul’s armpit as he drove me to the heights of passion. Place this shirt in a laundry of a dozen regiments and I shall still know my husband’s scent. No, Mr Harkins, Paul is here. Doubtless out digging some bone fragment, oblivious to time. He shall return when hungry and I shall be here for him. Once he arrives, your contract to me shall be considered to be fulfilled.”
“And our boat, Mrs Obrien?” he was dead inside. Without my help, he’d have to build a raft and his boatbuilding skills were poor which would put his further behind.
I laughed at his dismay, “Fear not Mr Harkins. I am a poor housewife and detest the cooking, cleaning and other chores a good wife requires. Fortunately, Ruth does those and I excel at other… wifely duties. So while Ruth was cleaning, I examined my husband’s journals and found this!” I showed him a drawing.
“A Balsa Tree, Mr Harkins. Found in the wilds of Central America, they need good drainage, warm weather and lots of rain. And for these gifts, they provide a wood that is light, floats well and is soft enough to carve quickly and easily. Once Paul arrives, we will ask him to show us the balsa grove, we shall fell a few trees and I shall quickly build you a double-hull boat that Cook described as the fastest sailing vessels in the world.”
We didn’t have long to wait before we heard footsteps in the gravel. “Quick, how do I look?”
“Beautiful as always, mother.”
“Do I need…..?”
“You are perfect! The man won’t even notice if you are wearing a bag and bald. Relax!”
I tried to be casual, pretending to cook when the door opened and.. ..
I fear I knocked him to the ground as I flung myself onto him, covering his face with my kisses. From a distance I heard Ruth say, “She’ll be busy for an hour at least, we should seek that grove and make ropes.”
I lay there, under my husband, listening to his heart beat, slowly calming, he speaking, “Well, that was… “
“It has been a very long time, my love,” I whispered. The I pushed him up and slapped him. Or tried. It was awkward with his weight laying upon me. My legs around his hips. “How dare you run off here without me!”
He rose to his arm-height replying, “You were gone, as always, on some mission to save the world! I sent a message. So don’t blame me!”
I pushed his arms out, allowing him to fall back on my chest. “Well, perhaps I’ll forgive you this time.”
We were still kissing, me feeling him grow hard again when Ruth called out, “Mother, are you finished yet? Mr Harkins grows impatient!”
“Cac!” I swore. “That man is such a fecking ballbag!”
“Janice!” Paul admonished, “Your language!”
“I’m sorry, but he does have terrible timing.”
“As much as I want to keep like this, perhaps Ruth is right. It does get dangerous out there at times so what are your plans?”
“Aside from dying happily underneath you? Make him a boat, send him away, settle in here like before when we were in Pellucidar.. until you are ready to go home.”
“A boat? To cross the sea? How? Not that I have any doubts about anything you set your mind to accomplish, I’m just curious.”
“Balsa Wood Catamaran!”
“How do you… my notes!”
I kissed him, “Exactly my love. Do we have time for…?”
“MOTHER! If you are DONE in there….”
“I’m coming!” I called back. Then to Paul, “But not with the passion that came before.” He swatted my behind as I rose to dress. “Careful, love, or you’ll be doing that tonight.”
Outside, Snorri grinning, Samuel red with embarrassment, Ruth said in Romanian, “I had to get them away, you are so noisy, mother. But we found that grove and some bamboo.”
I kissed her, “Wonderful, my dear. That will save us time. Now if you will grab your axe and my sword, I’ll see if I can still walk.” Samuel and Paul both turned red.
We hiked to the grove, Samuel watching Paul and wondering what I saw in the man. He was neither tall nor broad of shoulder nor particularly handsome and next to Snorri, was a child. Even Samuel was better looking and stronger built But he made me feel free and wonderful inside and in bed, I screamed like a cat in heat. He was only the second man that I had desired in that way, for I was still a lesbian and often wished that there were a woman or two along.
I quickly chose a couple trees and they were felled within minutes due to the softness of the wood. Then we limbed the trunks and prepared to drag one to the shore while Ruth cut bamboo and rattan. “Won’t she be at risk?” Samuel gasped as we carried the grass ropes to that monstrous lumber. “We saw evidence of huge archaeosaurs in the forest.”
I panted back, “Ruth is safer than would all of us were we armed with the best rifles money could buy.”
As we were chopping the trunk into shape, Ruth arrived leading a mammoth that was carrying a load of bamboo. Another mammoth was dragging the other balsa trunk. “I found help, Mother!”
Samuel stared, his eyes about to pop when I explained, “My daughter has a way with beasts. It was she who saved us from the spiders. Ruth, over here, sweety!”
I continued to shape the hulls as the others cut the bamboo and rattan to length and made ropes and Ruth and her mounts brought the Balsa trunks to the shore. Then I lay a rattan log into a groove along the top of my hulls both the strengthen the ama and to allow us support for the deck. I lashed that down and attached cross-braces to connect the two hulls. On top of this we lashed more bamboo and soon had a raft riding on two hulls. “With such a craft, the Polynesians sailed circles around the ships of the British Navy. Now for the mast and sail.”
I directed them to weave grass into mats which were sewn to bamboo battons and soon we had a Chinese Junk Sail. “With this sail, you can damage half the canvas and still sail. With a flat sail like we use in Europe, and that of the previous raft, a small hole will tear and ruin the entire sail. Now, Mr Harkins, I have told you and Snorri how to sail this craft and I can promise you that were the competition within sight of the farther shore, you could still overtake them.
“As for our business, I am happy that we found my husband alive and safe so your contract to me is fulfilled. I shall remain here with Ruth. You may keep the money and gear I left behind. Thank you, Mr Harkins for your valuable assistance.” I held my hand for him and he didn’t kiss it but he wanted to.
“Thank you Mrs Obrien and again, had I met a woman like you, I’d never have thought of leaving her for a trip such as this.”
Then he loaded aboard his sailboat that we had provisioned with more than enough food and water and Ruth had the mammoths push it into the sea and past the surf until the wind took over. Had we gone with him, Ruth would have had some Cretacious monster tow us across, but those two were now on their own. I did notice a tear on her cheek and hoped that she and Snorri had found a few moments alone.
We watched them for a moment, Samuel scratching his head and sides, than I turned to Ruth, “You didn’t?”
She shrugged and laughed, “There are fleas here, mother. I gave him something to remember us by and as a gift for abandoning us earlier.”
I laughed at that too, then before he could ask, there would be time for conversation later, asked my husband, “Paul, Would you like a hot meal before or after?”
“After me of course. I have had a long dry spell and intend to exhaust you terribly.”
As I ran to the hut, I heard Ruth Call out, “Mother! I’ll need a house of my own if you.. oh forget it, you aren’t listening anyway.”
ENDNOTE: This story follows the Jurassic World trilogy where the Duchess Janice Obrien first met Doctor Phillip Paul in Pellucidar while working for Homeland Security. It’s a Time travel paradox thing. So deal!
It occurs a few years after the Trilogy and complements my previous article "Where is the Opening to Pellucidar" as well as my current paper (in progress) "Multiple Entries to Pellucidar" (working title) which ties together and attempts to explain a number of fan-fic stories, published novels and movies that demonstrate that Jules Verne’s two novels A Journey to the interior of the Earth (1863) and A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1871) were early attempts to find Pellucidar. Basically, while doing the research for Multiple Entries, I got sidetracked!
And yes, I am still working on the Barsoomian Vegetation article. Along with "A Werewolf on Mars" story. And a few other papers on Martian Geology and its Relationship to Geography and Politics.
|ERBzine 1645: Johnson:
ERB Fan Profile
ERBzine 1522: Sociology of the Wieroo
ERBzine 1527: Maltheusian Decimation in Pal-Ul-Don
ERBzine 1547: Opar
ERBzine 1710: Conflict!
ERBzine 1965: Rescue In Pellucidar
ERBzine 1974: Anatomy of an Alien
ERBzine 2296: Where is the Opening to Pellucidar
ERBzine 2304: Prelude to Weir-Lu of Caspak
ERBzine 2388: Bright-Eyed Flower of Pal-ul-don
ERBzine 2394: Dinosaur
Survival On Earth
|ERBzine 1578: Barsoom
ERBzine 1370: Mapping Barsoom I: Can It Be Done?
ERBzine 1562: Mapping Barsoom II: Compromises
ERBzine 1565: Mapping Barsoom III: The Past
ERBzine 1633: Valley Dor
ERBzine 1634: Swords On Mars
ERBzine 1711: A Panthan of Mars
ERBzine 1712: Spy: Arrival On Mars
ERBzine 2165: Battle at U-Gor
ERBzine 2166: Lost On Barsoom
ERBzine 2167: Meeting of the Panthans: Pt. I
ERBzine 2168: Meeting of the Panthans: Pt. II
ERBzine 2169: North to Barsoom
ERBzine 2196: Jahar
ERBzine 2303: Return to Barsoom I: Letters
WEBJED: BILL HILLMAN
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