|CREATED||28 MAY 2000|
|This story is Copyright by David Ihnen. Please do not distribute without permission.|
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He turned back a few pages and looked at the rough sketch the hound had made of the previous bridge. Instead of a single arch, it had two. The center collumn had been on a large boulder. When that single support shifted in the spring floods, it brought the whole bridge down. Below it in an obviously different style, Sam had drawn the basic plan for the replacement. They were going to try a single span instead, with a long, round curve.
The river bed was now spanned by timbers, rising in a mass to the smooth planking that would form the underside of the bridge. The foundations at the end were already in place. He could see the Drake townspeople pulling a raft up the shallow river towards the bridge, loaded low in the water with large stones. It was pulled close and each stone was laboriously rolled up the ramp and into place for the foundation.
Finishing his picture the best he could for the moment, Sertofinus packed his belongings and walked back down to the construction. He kept jumping as his bare tail swung against the tall grass along the trail. Sooner or later he would get used to it. He grumbled, settling his pack more firmly around his shoulders. He missed the cool stone hallways of his home, Metamor Keep.
Job yelped, jumping back as a spark jumped into his leg fur from the stone Jert was hammering on.
"Hay, careful!" he barked, shifting his hammer in his hand.
They were squaring off smaller stones to be used for the sides of the bridge. They would keep the fill in place. Jert apologized.
"Sorry man, it slipped!"
Jed shook his head, not breaking his rythm of set, chip, set, chip. "Come on, get to work. We got a whole lot more stones to cut!"
Sertofinus approached, watching the dingos split the stones.
He picked up a round stone from a pile of apparently discarded stones like it.
"What's wrong with this one?"
"Geode." said Jake, tossing a finished stone into a the pile, and grabbing another to work on.
Sertofinus sniffed it. It smelled like all the other rocks, of algae and moss and river water. "What is a Gee-owed?"
"Itsa hollow rock with sparklies inside. Wanna see?" offered Jake.
Sertofinus nodded agreeably, and carried the rock over to him. Job and Jert snickered, pausing in their work to watch. Jed shook his head, making a noise of disgust, continuing his work.
"Five to one he doens't get it open on the first try!" proposed Job.
"You're on!" responded Jert.
Jake inspected the rock thoughtfully, and grinned at Job and Jert. "Watch me." he challenged, flexing his shoulders, obviously strong from the work. "Stand back, Mousey."
Sertofinus backed off a few steps, watching curiously. Jake carefully inspected the rock, turning it a certain way, wedging it between a couple other rocks. He layed his wedge against a smooth edge, and raised his hammer. He struck it violently. The rock shattered into several pieces.
He smirked at the other dingos as he picked up the larger of the sharp-edged fragments and handed it to Sertofinus. "Pretty cool, huh?"
The mouse couldn't believe his eyes! Behind the plain rough exterior of the rock, the inside was beautiful. Intricate crystals sparkled in a small cavity, seeming to sprout from the walls in little clusters of geometric columns. They caught the sunlight and returned its rays in myriad colorful sparkles.
"Wow." he said, sitting on a boulder, staring at the strange world inside the rock.
"Come on, get to it!" snapped Jed, "The bridge won't build itself!"
The dingos got back to work, chipping the rocks into roughly rectangular shapes. Jake continued speaking to the mouse.
"That's not even one of the good ones. Some mages can cut them with their magic. You see how where the rock broke the crystals are all dark? That doesn't happen when the mage cuts them. The whole insides of them are translucent. Really pretty."
"Uh, can I keep it?" asked the mouse.
Jake snorted, tossing a finished stone into the pile and grabbing another. "Yeah, sure! But I wouldn't wanna carry that big chunk of rock all the way back to the keep."
Sertofinus frowned. The rock _was_ heavy. He was having trouble holding it up in his paws, even just now. He set it down carefully on the discard stack, the crystals twinkling in the sunshine. He picked up a couple of the smaller shards, but the crystals on them were ruined. They were riddled by cracks, their depths dull and lifeless.
Maybe someday he could get one. The sparkles from the large piece were very pretty.
A cart rumbled up pulled by Hoss and Gerty. They dumped it unceremoniously on the uncleaved stones pile. Hoss eyed the discard pile, with the sparkly rock sitting atop it.
"Don't blame me." he neighed, "The townspeople are doing the quarrying!"
Job shrugged as he took finished rocks from Jert's paws in a steady rythm, stacking them in the cart. Their actions were mirrored by Jed and Jake. They quickly loaded about half the finished stones into the cart.
"Its your back, not ours!" noted the Jed, signalling a stop when the small cart creaked from the weight. He thumped Gerty's flank. "You know where they go!"
Hoss snorted, leaning into the harness with Gerty. They started up the rough trail to the bridge site. Sertofinus picked up his pack and trotted after the horses, catching up to the slow cart fairly quickly.
"Hi Hoss, Gerty." he said softly, falling into step alongside the massive equines, "Where's Stan?"
Hoss looked at him with one eye, not breaking stride. His breath wuffed in and out of his flared nostrils under the exertion.
"We're taking turns, he's resting down by the river. Two trips and a rest, the way it goes." he neighed.
Sertofinus nodded agreeably. "It looks like really hard work."
"Its not so bad when you're big and strong." shrugged Hoss.
"Seen any more Lutins lately, Serto?" Gerty spoke up, smiling over at him. Her massive draft horse hooves dug into the loose trail, adding further divets to the already tortured path.
Sertofinus shook his head. "Nope, not a single one."
"They know better than to bother us." chuckled the stallion, leaning hard with Gerty to pull the cart up a steeper portion of the trail, almost to the bridge.
Sertofinus shivered, fluffing his fur a bit. "They probably don't know that about mice." he murmured.
Gerty whickered soothingly. "Just keep close, sweety. You'll be fine." she suggested.
Sertofinus smiled and waved to the equines. He concentrated on trotting up the hill. Too much thinking of Lutins wasn't good for anybody.
Up at the bridge he found Dream holding up a beam as it was lashed into place by Louie. The simians were uniquely suited to the job, able to grasp with all four limbs. Dream released one hand from the beam to wave to the mouse. It started to rotate slowly.
"Heya Serto-mouse!" she called, "Draw any good pictures of us?"
Serto's ears pinked, and he started to stammer.
"Don't mind her, Master Mouse!" called Louie Huskily, "We'll torture her later."
"Sawya up on the rock" she explained, pointing over her shoulder casually. She caught the beam again before it swung out of Louie's reach.
The mouse nodded and carefully approached over the half-constructed stone foundation. The earth fill inside the structure was still quite loose. "Are you almost done?" he asked.
Dream nodded, swinging on a beam parallel to the one Louie was still busily lashing to the larger structure.
"Yup, this is the last one. Wanna ride to the top?"
Sertofinus looked unsure. "Well, its awful far up."
"Aww, come on!" she encouraged, reaching down with her feet and picking his slight frame up under his shoulders.
"Eeek!" squeaked the mouse, as much in delight as surprize.
"Hold on now." suggested the simian, giving the mouse a chance to grab around her neck, swinging him onto her back.
Then they were off, climbing rapidly through the intricate timber structure. She never faltered on a step. Within a minute they were on top of the structure, the inverse bridge stretching away and down in both directions. He slid down onto the loose planking, tentatively peering over the edge, then backing away.
"Ooh, this is a tall bridge!" he said.
Louie appeared over the edge, hugging Dream and patting Sertofinus as he settled down. "Naw, not that tall. You should try working on towers sometime. Now THOSE get tall. This is only fifty feet or so."
Dream pulled Sertofinus over, setting him on the edge. "You're not gonna fall, I promise." she said, "I'm right here."
They sat with their legs over the edge, peering down at the small shapes of Skylos and Sam picking their way amongst the large rocks of the river bed. Sertofinus gasped as his head swam. He looked up at the mountains instead. He leaned up against Dream as she absently brushed his thick headfur with her long fingers. It felt pleasant.
"Yeah, I worked on a tall bridge once." spoke Louie, his husky voice dissappearing in the space around them. "The lord actually wanted a bridge between his towers. Something about not wanting to go all the way to the bottom or some such nonsense."
Sertofinus looked over at the simian. "Where was that?"
"Up to the north, but you can't see it any more. That castle fell down years ago."
Dream chuckled. "Yeah, all Louie's greatest works are rubble now!"
Louie snorted. "I told the man the towers moved too much to take the weight. Seems he thought just 'cause it was made of stone it didn't move. Sure nuff, soon as them mages started throwing around their magic down it came. Right on the main hall, too! Lucky I got outta there alive."
Sertofinus looked up at Louie incredulously. "It almost fell on you?"
Louie shook his head. "No, they tried to kill me, just cause I helped build it. The bridge DID kill his daughter and half his soldiers." he allowed, "But it wasn't my fault. I told him myself wouldn't work. But who'm I but just a stonemason? MY opinion doesn't matter." he smirked sarcastically.
Dream glanced down the side of the structure. "Nobody likes 'I told you so'." she rebuked, "Oh, here come those mutts."
Louie peered down too. "So much for a break." he grinned, ruffling the mouse's ears.
Sertofinus looked over the edge curiously. Climbing up a set of ladders were the two canines. A few seconds later they arrived at the top, panting from the effort.
"What're you doin up here, just sittin around?" barked Sam, "We got work to do!"
Skylos laughed, nudging Sam. "They did just most of the building of the whole centering!" he reminded.
Sam humphed. "I'm tired of sleeping on the ground. I want to get back to the keep."
Louie stood. Sertofinus took the opportunity to scramble back from the edge. He felt better. Dream followed, speaking.
"So, what doya want us to do now?" she asked the canines.
"Find some keystones." said Sam. "You can take one of the rafts upstream a ways. It shouldn't be hard. Plenty of granite around here.
"Take me to the bottom?" requested Sertofinus. He felt very comfortable around Dream for some reason, even Sam's barky presence not disconcerting him as much as usual.
Dream helped him up and once secured, the two simians dropped casually over the side of the structure, quickly arriving at the bottom.
Sertofinus spent an hour in the late afternoon light drawing the truss structure of the bridge from a new angle. It was the "Centering", as Skylos called it. He had a good perspective from down below. It looked like it was strong enough to hold up a mountain. Rocks and dirt were pretty heavy. Maybe just a small mountain.
As the sun dissappeared behind the nearby mountain, he packed up his book and headed back to the camp. He found Grumpy at the east end of the bridge, sifting a pile of dirt through her claws. She tossed the boulders and stones she found into a pile to one side, shoving the smaller stones and dirt off to the other.
"Hi Grumpy!" he piped, approaching.
The giant Badger's head swung around, ears focusing on the sound. She smiled.
"Sertofinus." she rumbled in greeting.
"Almost time for dinner!" he spoke cheerfully.
The badger sifted a few more fistfuls of dirt, tossing a couple larger rocks into the rock pile.
"Good. I'm hungry." she rumbled as she stood up, moving towards the camp alongside the mouse.
Sertofinus trotted along with her long steps.
"The centering is complete!" he told her, "tomorrow we start building the arch!"
Grumpy nodded. "Yes. The rest of the mortar arrives tomorrow too. We'll be done in a couple weeks."
They could smell the sweet savor of Suez's thick stew as they approached the camp. Two keeper mouths watered. They hurried their steps, anticipating dinner.
The builders were laying about the fire in the late twilight, taking some well earned rest after a long day of construction.
Dream and Louie were singing odd duets with each other. They were rythmic and quiet at the same time. Sertofinus couldn't understand any of the words. The sounds gave him an odd feeling when he listened closely. Sometimes it seemed as if the trees and the crickets and cicadas were joining in, twining together in a gentle evening song.
Suez was playing cards with Jed, Stan, and Jert. Judging by the growing pile of pebbles next to him he was winning whatever game they were playing. Job and Jake were watching intently, having run out of their allotment of pebbles some time before. The group snickered and laughed intermittently, sharing some private joke.
Sam and Skylos were laying close to the fire, in full canine form, just enjoying the warmth and relaxing. Stretched out there they could have been dead, except their sides were lifting in slow breath. Hoss and Gerty were probably doing the same, he could hear their hooves intermittently shuffling under a nearby tree.
Grumpy was sprawled out on the ground, Sertofinus perched atop. He was grooming her thick fur with a brush, pulling out bits of dirt and tangles with regularity. Grumpy made happy noises as he worked over her, brushing her fur out nicely. She sure had alot of fur. He panted from the effort. His arms ached, and he still had an arm, a leg, and her stomach to complete. He kept working on it anyway. It wouldn't do to stop in the middle.
He wasn't entirely comfortable touching Grumpy this way, even though he had been sleeping in her arms since the first night on the trail. When she put her powerful limbs around him, with all that thick fur, worries evaporated. He could sleep happily, forgetting that Lutins could attack at any time. The other builders probably thought he was sweet on Grumpy. He glanced about nervously. He was halfway down the badger's stomach.
The card playing keepers snickered at something as he came to the badger's hips. Sertofinus blushed and hurriedly brushed across Grumpy's hips, focusing on the leg. The players laughed loudly. The mouse frowned and concentrated on brushing the tangles out of the fur around Grumpy's knee. Then her calves and ankles, and he was done. He sat down with a tired sigh beside her.
"oof." he said, "that's hard work."
Grumpy shifted a bit, reaching over to rub his front, her big claws sliding under his arm. He smiled and leaned into it. She didn't say anything, but her breath warmed his ear as she nosed him her thanks. He couldn't help but smile, it made him feel so good. He leaned up against her. The fire had died to to the hot glow of embers, a barely visible line of blue flame jetting from one of the larger logs. He could feel the heat of the fire on his paws and nose. Fires always felt warmer before he had fur.
The canines had risen from the fire, and were herding the builders into the sleeping tent.
"Come along, people." grumbled Sam, "lets get some sleep. Up bright and early in the morning. Grumpy and Sertofinus have first watch, followed by me and Stan later. Jed and Dream take third and Jake and Hoss'll finish up the night."
The rest of the keepers grumbled their way into the tent, leaving Sertofinus and Grumpy alone in the darkness. Grumpy sat up, turning her back to the fire. Sertofinus stretched and stood, looking about as the clearing returned to relative quiet. He glanced over at Grumpy. She was shifting to her full animal form, a badger. A very large one, but definitely a badger. Her powerful body was turned away from him, her stripes visible in fire's glow. She had an aura of confidence and power that Sertofinus could only dream of having. He walked over and patted her shoulder. She was about four feet tall at the shoulder in this form. She looked up to him and nosed him briefly before walking off around the perimeter of the camp. Her claws made a muted rattle amidst the stones and roots.
Sertofinus sat on one of the logs drawn close to the fire, and shifted to his full mouse form. He shook his head as the sensation passed, and pawed his way out of his tunic. He perched on top of his clothes there, taking the opportunity to wash his face with his paws. It made him feel good. His ears twitched at an odd sound. It wasn't Grumpy, walking around from the right. A whirring noise from his left. Adrenaline surged in him and he dove into the nearest dark hole, his boot.
The owl swerved as a mass of black and white fur slammed into it. It tumbled across the ground and scrambled up, wings beating furiously to carry it away.
Sertofinus poked his nose out the top of his boot, his whiskers quivering as he scented the night air.
Grumpy's large nose sniffed him for a moment before she spoke.
"Grrf." she reprimanded.
The mouse squeaked, and hopped out of the boot. He shifted back to his more normal size. Grumpy was watching him, smiling open-mouthed. He blushed heavily, hurriedly picking up his breeches and pulling them on. He followed them with his boots and tunic, sitting back on the log. Trying to ignore the badger. His ears still burned, hot with embarassment.
Grumpy wuffed quietly and walked around the camp again. When she returned she lay full length on the ground, not far from the mouse's position. He moved over to her and sat down, his hip against her flank, watching the forest behind her. They sat and listened.
Sertofinus flicked his ears, trying to focus on the sound. It was very faint, from the direction of the bridge. He picked up a pebble and tossed it in the direction of a particularly loud cricket, silencing it for a moment. His whiskers twitched as he tried to make it out. Voices? A saw? Nothing. His imagination, probably. He stood as the badger shifted under his arm, standing up.
Her dark eyes looked into his quietly. He reached out for no particular reason and stroked her stiff whiskers. It earned him a smile. She turned and shuffled off around the camp. When she returned she was back in her biggest form.
"Our watch is up." she rumbled, turning to the tent.
Sertofinus followed, helping her awake the next watch. They settled into their usual spot along the wall of the tent. He sighed in relaxation as his tail pressed into her warm fur. Her arms gently hugged him into her warmth. All the tension of the day and owl and embarassment drained away, sleep rushing over his conciousness.
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