Crocodilian ~ Chapter 6
Tales of Havek: Volume One | Duration: 11 Minutes 28 Seconds
VI: (Un)Expected Truths
Richta led the way at a brisk pace, ignoring Ian for the most part, even letting Ian walk on the eye patch side where he had no peripheral vision. Ian Merstellar could have easily had the drop on him, unless the man was simply so confident in his defensive capabilities that Ian wasn’t a threat. Not that he was, but Ian expected more apprehension, after all, he was a stranger who had shown up on Yonledo’s metaphorical doorstep. Richta’s indifference inadvertently made Ian feel welcomed.
They descended a swaying staircase between two boardwalks before stepping foot upon the much larger boardwalk connected to everything like a centerpiece. Even this massive U-shaped boardwalk swayed, hanging from thick ropes each the size of Ian’s bicep. The ropes were fastened to over-sized rings at the edges of the boardwalk, running up to giant, wooden pillars uniformly placed about the town, their tendrils drooping down like inverse spider legs.
“What are these things?” Ian asked, pointing.
Richta glanced back to check what Ian meant, then followed his gesture to the pillar. “Oh, we call them tide columns. They’re the reason the town is still here. Everything is supported by the tide columns, literally. Took a lot of wood, and I mean a lot of it. Those mangrove roots are a lot tougher than you’d think. Kind of ingenious really. Not my idea, mind you, and definitely not my area of expertise. But trust me, I’ve seen the columns in action, and they work.”
“How do they work, though?” Ian asked, still gawking at the tide column he was passing.
“When the tide rolls in and the water level rises, the whole town floats atop the water without being flooded,” Richta said, barely looking back. “This place floods big time. We hadn’t expected it in the beginning, but we adapted, persevered.”
There was a soft, rhythmic thumping that filled the air as the edges of the boardwalk rubbed up against smaller platforms to either side. The smaller platforms were rectangular slabs featuring cabin-like structures, their roofs laden with bits of solar stone for powering the lights. At first the thuds were annoying, but they soon fell into the background ambience amidst the waves lapping against the tide columns and the trees rustling in the night breeze. Given that Ian had nearly been eaten by a giant crocodile not long prior, he was shocked to find how calm he was. This place wasn’t so bad.
“Daddy,” a little girl said, running out from one of the cabins. Richta picked her up and gave her a big hug, before putting her back down. She only came up to his waist and he placed a hand on her head as he turned to introduce her.
“This is my daughter, Merai. Say hello to my friend Ian, honey. He’s new in town.” His daughter ducked behind his leg, one eye peeking out. “She’s shy. Alright, Merai, go on back to Mom. It’s past your bedtime.”
“No buts. Go on.”
The little girl forfeited quickly, knowing the likely outcome, and scurried off. She paused, remembering something, and faced Ian. “Hey mister Ian, since you’re new, watch out for the crocodiles!” She mispronounced crocodiles but Ian knew what she meant.
Ian nodded. “I sure will, miss Merai.”
She smiled, and then proceeded to run back into her mother’s embrace, who stood just inside the cabin’s entrance. Richta saluted his wife and she gave a half wave as she watched them continue on to the mayor’s house. Ian then noticed other people in their cabins peering out from the small, glassless windows. He assumed they had heard the disturbing cries of the night howlers and had waited up to see what all the commotion was about. They looked afraid of what would happen if they left the confines of their homes, hopeless. Yonledo was truly a town held hostage. What is going on here? Ian wondered.
As the two of them walked along a bend in the boardwalk, something caught Ian’s attention. There were several spears erected near the main footbridge that connected down to the bay’s beach area; the entrance to the town. The spears flanked either side of the footbridge, their sharp ends glistening in the moonlight. But it was what sat pierced upon them that unnerved Ian. Richta passed by as he’d probably done many times before without second thought, but Ian stopped to inspect the eerie display.
“Are these the crocodiles Merai mentioned?” Ian asked.
Richta turned back. “Ah, yes. Odd looking species, eh? Something different about them that I haven’t been able to pin down. Highly aggressive, like the one that was coming for you earlier, except that was the big one, probably their guardian or pack leader, whatever they call it. I’ve been trying to take it down for weeks, but with no luck, unfortunately. These two, however, fell for the traps I’d laid out for them. Good thing, too, since my rifle barely pierces that thick hide of theirs.”
“What kind of traps?” Ian asked.
Richta only grinned. Ian had a weird feeling in his gut looking at the crocodile heads, their jaws agape, eyes missing, flies buzzing about to land on the crooked, yellowed teeth. He didn’t feel disgusted. No, it wasn’t that. It was more of a connection to them, knowing that the two were probably related somehow, that the bigger one maybe had a reason to be angry. But he rationalized that they were just animals and he was humanizing their behavior. Although, until that moment he’d regretted taking on the mission, it was then, seeing the town and the creatures terrorizing it up close, that he’d grown genuinely invested in finding out the truth.
They continued on from the crocodile heads until they reached the largest structure in Yonledo: the mayor’s mansion. At two stories tall, the building required its very own tide pillars to hold it up, one on each side, dozens of taut ropes sharing the weight. The amount of solar lamps adorning the outside alone signaled to Ian that someone of money surely resided there, forget the fact that the entire roof consisted of the extremely rare solar stones, their iridescent green glow distinct in every way; warm and inviting like the towers in Asyrema City after a particularly long, sunny day.
Richta knocked upon the double-wide front door. A staircase wound up the front of the structure to a secondary door, but if the mayor lived downstairs, Ian wasn’t sure what could be up there. Grumbling could be heard from inside, then one of the doors swung open, creaking on its hinges.
“What is it? What could possibly be so—” the heavy set man cut off when he noticed his personal guard and a stranger standing with him. “Oh, hey. Wait, who’s this?”
“This is Ian. He’s from the Cartographers’ Guild. He claims to have received your letter, sir, the one that you sent three days ago by carrier,” Richta said with a suspicious emphasis on the time frame.
Mayor Penh looked Ian up and down. “How? It would’ve taken twice the time for someone to travel all this way. I’m not even certain the letter made it to them yet. Can birds fly that fast?”
“Look, I know it sounds weird, but I’m able to—” Ian started.
“Come in,” the mayor ordered. “I don’t like the door being open, the bugs swarm all over.”
Ian noticed that the windows were open like all the others in town and wanted to question the mayor’s logic, but he kept his mouth shut. They shuffled into a large living room space. There were framed, taxidermied animal heads lining the back wall, none of which seemed native to the region, more like trophies from Undrey Penh’s past. The mayor—wearing silk pajamas, the smooth cloth filling into creases Ian would rather not see—made himself at home, plopping down into a plush seat at the foot of a long coffee table.
“So, you were saying, map-maker,” the mayor said, his gaze leveling on Ian. “Explain to me how you’re able to somehow beat my letter bird back from the capital. Is there some new invention that I’ve yet to hear about? A carriage that can steer itself? Bah, I can only imagine.” The mayor gave a hearty chuckle at that, very much pleased with himself.
Ian looked to Richta and the guard nodded for him to go on and explain himself. Ian shuffled slightly. The mayor frowned at the display of uncertainty. “I, uh, can teleport,” Ian blurted. “I can travel long distances in the blink of an eye. That’s partially why I was chosen by the guild to come here. William Yitlin wanted to know—” Ian was cut off by a sudden burst of laughter.
“Is this some kind of joke? ‘Teleport,’ he says,” Mayor Penh said, jerking his head between Ian and Richta. Richta remained silent, looking up at the wall of trophies, his lips pursed.
“No, sir,” Ian stammered. “Trust me, I know it sounds silly. I would show you but I lost my conduit, my hat. It’s out there in the swamp and I need to get it back. But for now you just have to believe me.”
“Your hat?!” the mayor laughed. “I don’t have to believe you. The only one I believe in is my Creator, and guess what? It’s been all of fifty-three years and I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him. So don’t tell me to believe you, map-maker.”
Ian’s cheeks flushed and his hands got sweaty. Usually he had more control over his demeanor. The superior confidence of having his ability as a backup if anything got out of hand had vanished along with the hat. It had always given him an edge when dealing with certain types of people. But now he felt naked in front of a crowd, nowhere to run, no means of escape. He had to swing the conversation back into his favor. He had an idea.
“I know what was in the letter that you sent the guild. I know that you claimed that crocodiles were attacking your town—”
“Yes, everyone knows that,” the mayor interjected.
“—And I know you needed help finding the hunter you’d hired to kill those crocodiles. He’d gone missing. Well, I found him. He lives in a cabin down by the river. His name is Unkel Bo, but the issue is that he doesn’t hunt anymore. Retired, I think.”
“Uncle Bo? Who’s uncle?” Mayor Penh asked.
“No, that’s his name, Unkel Bo,” Ian said.
“That’s not a name. Richta, please, help me out here.”
Richta grinned, shaking his head. “I think the kid’s right, that was his name, if I remember correctly.”
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t remember it,” the mayor said. “Even the scribe knew that much, Almighty rest his soul.”
Mayor Penh adjusted in his big chair and leaned forward, swatting at a bug buzzing his nose. The big man grabbed the pen sitting on the coffee table and waved vaguely in Richta’s direction. The guard moved as if this was something he’d done many times before, pulling a manila sheet from a drawer on the other side of the room. Richta handed it to Mayor Penh, who snatched the paper and slammed it down on the table in front of him, positioning both toward Ian.
“Here’s the deal. You claim to know where this hunter lives. Draw it for me, map-maker. In the morning, Richta here will escort you to the location you’re about to document and see if you are lying. And if you are, then he’ll… Well, we don’t have to worry about that right now. Go on, show us where this cabin by the river is.”
Ian stepped forward and picked up the pen, leaning over the short table. Sweat beaded on his brow. He wasn’t used to the humidity here, sure, but this was something else entirely. He’d never been this nervous before. He glanced at Richta, but the man was picking at something on his shirt, uninterested. Looking at the paper, Ian tried to picture what to draw. In his mind’s eye, he saw the river, the coastline and the gulls, the thick mangrove forests. It was all clear in his memory, but when it came to putting it down on paper, it evaporated. His hand began to shake and he didn’t know which fingers went where on the pen. Mayor Penh cleared his throat impatiently. Ian wanted to just tell them the truth, that he couldn’t draw. But he was paralyzed, just like he’d been when the crocodile had locked its beady eyes onto him.
A harsh yell came from outside, elongated and guttural. The three of them jumped at the sudden disturbance. They then looked at each other as if speaking with their eyes only. Richta removed the rifle that was slung on his shoulder and checked to make sure it was loaded, then headed to the front door.
Ian dropped the pen and was following Richta like his shadow. Yes, there had been a blood-curdling yell outside, but even that seemed the better alternative to staying here under the death glare of Mayor Penh. The mayor, too, had crossed the room in an impressive rush, breathing heavily behind Ian. Richta looked over his shoulder at the two men huddled behind him. Then he turned the handle and led the way, once again facing the horrors of the night to protect those that needed protecting.
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