Ellis L. “Skip” Knox, Into the Second World
Into the Second World
Length: 306 pages
The Queller Expedition
We spent the money from the newspaper in a single day; Queller and Thesiger appeared to have any number of merchants lined up and ready to sell. We left Salzburg shortly after noon the day following, going by foot.
“We shan’t have ponies once inside the caverns,” Professor Queller explained, then added with typical arrogance, “so you may as well try out your shoes while you can still repent.”
He baited me like that more than once on our march. I recognized the tactic, though I doubt he did. For him, it was simply normal male behavior when saddled with a woman on a man’s undertaking. There’s the door, young miss; you may leave any time, without criticism. No one would blame you if you give up on an enterprise for which you are so obviously ill suited. I ignored that sort of thing without half trying.
And I was already sure of my shoes.
We had barely left sight of Salzburg before we began climbing. The city stands at the edge of the Austrian Alps. To the north, the land tilts in long vales down to the River Ister. To the south, mountains rise abruptly to great, snowy heights.
Within an hour we were hiking up a narrow valley. Hills rose steeply on either side (we would call them mountains, back home), thick with dark green pine and a scattering of poplar and alder. A little road picked its way through the valley, its flanks chewed on one side by a river and by deep forest on the other.
I felt good. The day was warm but cloudy, neither hot nor cold. Perfect walking weather. I was able to keep up with the others.
I’d been worried about that but found in the professor an unwitting ally. I saw at once that Niklot and Cosmas were moderating their pace for the professor, a pace that turned out very nearly to match my own, burdened as I was. Henrik Queller’s constitution was strong, though. He never slackened his slow but steady stride and was usually the first to rise from a rest, eager to go on. He was full of good cheer, plainly excited to be off on an adventure.
My pack did slow me a bit. This proved a minor point of contention before we left, for Cosmas carried the gear of everyone else. When we gathered at the Mirabell to set out, I saw only walking sticks, plus Cosmas and a misshapen bag.
Nik and the Doktor Professor both suggested I give my pack to the ogre.
“He carries all of it,” Nik said. “He’s a träger. A bearer.”
I glanced over. Now I understood the ogre’s role in the party. I had heard of trägern, but had never seen one. They were highly valued as bearers, incredibly strong, and like all ogres, utterly reliable when under contract. Still ...
“But where are all our supplies,” I asked. “Food, equipment?”
Cosmas held up the bag. “Ein trägersack,” he rumbled.
“Very few ogres have a bearer’s sack anymore,” he explained, “and even fewer know how to make one.”
I looked at the bag. Plain gray wool, as far as I could tell. Or was that canvas? The more I inspected, the less sure I was of the material.
“There are no seams,” I said.
“So it does not come apart at the seams,” Cosmas said.
“Everything is in there?”
“Is it heavy?”
“No.” He held it out with one hand. It sagged almost to the ground. When he slung it back over his shoulder, it seemed to grow smaller.
Despite the offer, I insisted on carrying my own pack. By the end of the day I was heartily regretting my decision, but I clung to it nevertheless. I had stated to all of them that I could manage, so manage I must.
The man looked back at me and slowed to walk beside me.
“Before we go much farther, let’s get this name business out of the way.”
“I’m Nik. You’re Gabrielle. My uncle’s name is Henrik, the dwarf’s Bessarion but you can call him Beso, and Cosmas is too tall to have a nickname.”
I couldn’t help smiling.
“Nik,” I said, hesitantly.
“Very well, call me Gabi.”
He nodded. “Pleased to me you, Gabi. You had a question?”
“Not really. It’s just that ... well, it struck me as ironic, is all.”
“It’s all uphill,” I said. We were walking in deep shadow; I had no idea of the time, though the sky-which I could see only by looking nearly straight up-was still a deep blue where it showed between clouds.
“We are in mountains,” Nik replied.
“A fact hard to miss,” I said. “I just find it ironic that in order to go deep into the earth we must first go up.”
He had the decency to chuckle at that.
“It would have been more convenient,” he said, “if Lamprecht had placed his cave down nearer Salzburg. Or near Rostock, if we are wishing.”
This declaration came from Bessarion. He was standing in a small clearing, hardly more than a wide spot in the little road. Professor Queller pulled out a large chronometer from his vest pocket, consulted it, and nodded.
“Seven by the clock,” he said.
I thought it rather early to be stopping but for once had the sense to say nothing.
Nik got a fire going while Bessarion saw to the meal, which consisted of dried meat and dense bread of the sort favored by dwarves, along with some sharp, odorous cheese. I was hungrier than I thought, and it all tasted divine to me. Cosmas somehow managed to pull out whatever was requested from his magic bag, almost without hesitation.
“How do you find anything in there,” I asked him as we were finishing.
“By looking,” he replied. His face was so misshapen, with hardly anything in proper alignment, it was impossible to tell when he was joking or serious.
“Do you have shelves in there, or drawers?” I said.
“Not as you would understand them,” he answered.
“Uncle says the most patient man in the world is he who studies ogres,” Nik said from the other side of Cosmas. “One never gets from them a whit more than one asks.”
“Could I reach into the bag?”
“You don’t want to do that,” Nik said. The ogre nodded agreement.
“And why not?”
“You’d likely not get your hand back. A trägersack is for ogres, and each is unique to the individual. Cosmas spent years crafting this particular bag. Anyone else reaching in there would lose their way.” He raised an eyebrow at me and added, “I wasn’t joking about losing a hand.”
I folded my hands in my lap and said nothing. The only magic I’d encountered was scientific magic-devices powered by Steam or some other derivative of phlogiston, or else the puzzle box I had back home in Stralsund, given me by my grandmother and crafted by a vill gnome. Even after centuries of study, no one could agree on whether gnome work was magic or not. These days many people, and I count myself among them, are not entirely comfortable with the word magic at all. There is Steam. There are some unexplained mysteries. The word magic feels altogether too much like we are still living in the Dark Ages.
The day gradually came to an end. I managed to make notes by the light of the campfire as Bessarion let it burn down, and to do a little writing, as I listened to the men talk among themselves.
How fortunate boys are, I wrote. They are given markers of progress and achievement throughout their lives. They move through their forms at school, receive degrees as they advance in rank. In business, money marks their progress. They gain titles, property, companies. Little wonder their talk at the end of a strenuous day is so relaxed and confident. They live in a different world from me.
We women are measured by what we lose: beauty, youth, virtue. None of these can be measured objectively; they can only be disfigured, lost, or disgraced. We cannot become younger. Nor, to be candid, can we ever be more virtuous than the virgin. This must be why we spend so much effort on beauty, the one thing we can affect. The only title we gain also comes from the male: wife.
It has ever been thus, but today there is another way, that of the modern woman. We few dare to meet men on their own ground. Even more! We stand on ground of our own choosing and refuse to cede that ground to men, but call it a land open to all. In that land, in every endeavor, but most especially in science and the exploration of our world, we meet with everyone on equal terms-men and women, elves and dwarves, even ogres. We are courteous to all who respect science, and every reputation must be earned.
Such, or very nearly, were my words that evening-words both bitter and bold. It was a kind of pep talk to myself, nor was it the last such. The days to come were hard, testing me in ways expected and unexpected. On this first night out, the talk was based on principles as yet untested. I went no further that night. Besides, as the light failed and conversation faltered, I discovered I was remarkably sleepy.
We rose the next day in near darkness. The grass of the clearing was wet with dew; water dripped from the alder trees. A deep chill had settled into my body, and I rose by stages, like an elderly lady. I followed the example of the men and stamped about to get the blood flowing. We were to have no fire, but set out after only some bread and cheese, and plenty of water.
And after a ritual performed by the dwarf.
Cosmas produced a hollow stone block, reddish in color, and handed it to Bessarion. The dwarf set it carefully on the ground. I moved to a better vantage point and saw a small statue stood inside the block.
Bessarion stood facing it. He knelt, then made a series of rapid gestures with his hands, speaking in low, swift tones; his back was toward me and I could not see the motions. He then stood and faced about. His back faced the shrine, for such I supposed it to be, and he spoke again. I could not catch the words.
He picked up the shrine, gave it back to Cosmas, who placed it in his bag, and then we were off, up the narrow valley.
“What was that ritual?” I asked Professor Queller in little more than a whisper. I didn’t want Bessarion to hear; it felt rather like gossiping.
“A traveling ritual,” he replied in an ordinary voice. “He places the shrine with appropriate words. He faces it and says where he has come from; then he turns and says where he is going.”
“Interesting,” I said, though honestly it seemed a little silly to give travel information to a statue.
“It is a common practice, though Beso is of the Old Reverence, so he speaks the words in Old Dwarvish, which is not at all common.”
“What if one doesn’t know where one is going next?”
“If you don’t know where you are going,” Beso’s voice came from up ahead, “then why do you leave?”
Nik chuckled behind me. “Dwarf ears,” he said. “The practice is not only common, it’s also very old. Dwarves speak to the ancestors, so all know where they’ve come from and where they’re going. It is a reverence.”
“It is my own belief,” Queller added, “that it reflects an ancient practice that helped them not lose their way when deep under the mountains.”
“Interesting,” I said, except this time I meant it.
We walked in silence for another hour. The day got no warmer, but the steady pace at least warmed me on the inside. I looked around me often, thinking I might be the first to spot the opening that was Lamprechtsofen-Lamprecht’s Cave. As I write this now, I smile at my naiveté.
One of the little brooks that fed the river threaded its way from a declivity in the mountain side. The opening was scarcely twenty feet wide, with granite cliffs rising a hundred feet or more. Enormous boulders lay in a pile at the mouth, so that one had to look sharp even to notice the stream. Bessarion turned aside without a word, clambering over the rocks without looking back once. It was plain we were simply to keep up.
Professor Queller followed close behind, surprisingly agile for an elderly man carrying a walking stick in either hand. His Tyrolean cap sat at a rakish angle on his long head. He had chosen a ridiculous orange feather to set into the band, giving him the appearance of an exotic bird hopping from stone to ledge to stone.
Niklot came next. His gray felt hat was pinned up on one side. He wore the same tall black boots, woolen pants felted, and a least two layers of shirt beneath a leather vest much decorated with embossed figures. He moved with the dexterous grace I had imagined he would possess. He was, after all, the only explorer among us.
“Après vous, mademoiselle.”
The French, delivered by a hulking ogre in a fine Parisian accent, made me chuckle. I had meant to go last, to keep the whole story in front of me, as it were, but Cosmas disarmed me. Soon, I was scampering over boulders that were as big as oxen, and edging my way along narrow ledges mere inches above the burbling stream. The sun had risen, I supposed, but in these deep valleys my familiar Baltic notion of sunrise became nearly irrelevant. I doubted these chill depths ever saw that yellow orb for more than an hour a day. Soon enough, I knew, I would be where no sunlight had ever reached in all the years of the world.
As we moved upstream, the cleft narrowed even as the cliffs rose to ever greater heights, and the watercourse deepened. The boulders and ledges were fewer, forcing us to leap like goats from one to the next. There was no possibility of wading; the water was much too cold, and in any case it was now six or seven feet deep, perfectly clear. I wondered if we were going to be asked to swim.
Sounds here were muffled by the closeness, but at the same time each was rendered sharp by the stone walls. We made our way along a natural concourse carved by forces indifferent to the tread of living creatures. Every aspect of this canyon reminded me of what lay before me, and every aspect became inexpressibly sweet: the filtered light, the sound of wind, the smell of pine.
All of this would soon be lost to us. It came to me that I had never properly valued the natural world before now, that to study it is one thing, but to live in it is quite another. Much of what we do as men and women is meant to remove us from nature. We make fire to ward against the cold. We build shelters against sun and storm. We erect walls to shut out animals. Our modern homes are so far removed from nature that we buy paintings depicting landscapes, animals, and plants to remind us of what we’ve abandoned. We bring nature back inside, but tamed and framed, only dimly aware of what we have not so much lost as have intentionally shut away.
A tremendous splash interrupted these thoughts, and I was back in the moment.
“What’s happened?” I called out, alarmed by the noise. I could only think some great rock had crashed down among us.
“Nothing,” Nik replied. “Just crossing over.”
I was still trying to decode that statement when Bessarion the dwarf emerged from the icy water and scrambled onto a ledge on the other side. He was utterly naked.
I admit I gasped and averted my eyes. Even as I looked away, I heard Niklot and Professor Queller joking in low tones, followed by two splashes and a tremendous amount of hooting, which echoed up and down the canyon.
“You’re next, Miss Gabrielle Lauten,” Cosmas said behind me. “Leave your clothes and I’ll get them across dry.”
“I shall certainly not!” I exclaimed. I turned to face the ogre, who himself was in the act of disrobing. I quickly turned aside. “You cannot expect me to ... to do such a thing.” I said this to the stone cliff, this being the only direction I could face and still preserve decorum.
“It is necessary,” Cosmas said. “We cannot go far in wet clothes.”
He was right, of course. But the circumstances were so outlandish, I literally did not know which way to turn.
“Ho, Cosmas, do get over here. We’re freezing!”
“Fräulein Lauten,” the professor said, “pray do not be alarmed. Once we are clothed, we’ll turn aside and give you privacy. But do please let Cosmas pass; he has our clothes.”
I could hear his teeth chatter in the pauses.
“Oh, do go on,” I told the ogre. “Let’s get this over with. I feel ridiculous standing here talking to a cliff.”
Cosmas rumbled an agreement; this was followed by indistinct rustling. I admit I stole a look and then a second. An unclothed ogre is a sight not to be missed, and social conventions be damned.
He was covered in hair. Not shaggy like some bipedal yak, but in a smooth pelt, much like that of a fox, and similar in coloration. His physique was every bit as muscular as one might imagine. I thought him rather magnificent.
I don’t think he noticed my glances.
A moment later, he slipped into the water as smoothly as an eel and was standing in the stream, which rose only high enough to cover his belly. This allowed him to sling his bag onto one shoulder. I turned slightly to watch him gather the other clothes.
“I say, Cosmas, do hurry,” Professor Queller said. “You can turn around now, Fräulein.” he added. “We have moved out of view.”
I turned in time to see Cosmas wading upstream, where the depth was shallower. Water streamed from his shoulders and chest, and his fine, thick hair glistened like a river otter’s. After a few minutes, he had delivered the clothes and had returned. The unavoidable had arrived. I gulped, and started with my hat.
“I propose an alternative,” Cosmas said. “If you will remove your shoes and stockings, then roll up your skirt as high as you can, I might bear you across without further loss of dignity.”
I stared at the ogre for a moment. His deep, dark eyes of uncertain color were wide. His head ducked in small, nodding motions every several seconds, which I later learned signified entreaty. Then I suddenly realized he was still standing waist deep in frigid waters. I glanced upstream but could see no signs of the other men. Balancing precariously on a slanting boulder, I removed shoes then stockings, rolling the latter up tight and stuffing them into the former.
The skirt was another matter. A split skirt is in many ways a blessing for the outdoors woman, but it has its drawbacks. I could have hiked a proper skirt high enough-to my smallclothes, if need be-but the best I could manage with this was to pull each leg as high as I could then fold the material above the knee. By this means I bared my legs well above the knee but not much further. At my nod, Cosmas offered his broad shoulders, and I climbed awkwardly aboard.
As stately as a ferry, Cosmas turned about and began to cross. My feet dangled in the water to the ankle, then to the shin. The cold grabbed hold of me tight.
“This is the deepest part,” Cosmas said, draping his arms over my thighs to keep me steady. I felt almost like a young girl, riding pick-a-back on my father’s shoulders. I entwined my fingers in the thick hair on his head. The water rose even higher, and I could not avoid having a few inches of my hem trail in the stream. We rose out again, though, and soon Cosmas was setting me carefully on the opposite side. About a foot of my skirt was soaked, and my legs ached with cold, but I was otherwise fine. I thanked the ogre.
“I regret I could not keep you dry,” he said.
“Not at all,” I said. “It was most gallantly done. I thank you, Herr ... what is your family name?”
“Well, thank you very much, Herr Ianesc.”
“You are welcome, Miss Gabrielle Lauten.”
“Please, call me Gabi, as a friend.”
He touched the back of his hand to his heavy lips. “I am Cosmas. The family name is for strangers, to read in your newspapers.”
I smiled at him. I had made a friend, and he was an ogre. I didn’t even mind when he smiled back.
Cosmas and I caught up with the others at a waterfall. There the stream plunged over the granite cliff to form a wide pool at its base, fringed with smooth stones that formed a kind of beach on one side. The whole dell was no more than fifty feet across, but it felt spacious after the narrow canyon, and bright sunlight warmed the cold stone. I would have lingered there a while, a secluded and peaceful spot perfect for writing, but Bessarion was already eager to be gone.
The whole dell was hemmed in by tall cliffs. I looked about me, wondering where we were to go next. Up a stone ladder, evidently, for the dwarf was already on its lower steps. Someone, undoubtedly his ancestors, had cut deep steps into the gray rock. Having been designed for dwarves, each step was within easy reach, and each had metal spikes driven into them to use as handholds. Bessarion went up this contrivance as easily as a cat climbs a tree. He then let down a rope, which Nik secured to his uncle, despite the professor’s vehement cries that he was not a child. Nik insisted, and those two went up next.
As they climbed, Cosmas spoke to me.
“Miss Gabrielle Lauten,” he said, “please allow me to take your pack. The climb is perilous. The additional weight is nothing to me, but I would not want it to pull you off the cliff.”
I protested that I intended to carry my own.
“Yet,” Cosmas replied, “you see that none of the others do, not even Niklot Thesiger.”
I had no reply for this. Moreover, I thought I might be giving offense to the ogre by not entrusting him with my belongings when directly asked. I smiled at myself, to think I worried about offending an ogre, but there it was. I could scarcely repay his courtesy with stiff-necked pride. Besides, his offer lacked any overtones of male supremacy. I handed over my pack and started up the stone ladder.
Within minutes I was glad of my decision. My arms and legs seemed to grow heavier with each step. The sun that had been so welcomingly warm now was becoming annoyingly hot. The higher I climbed, the more terrifying was every glance down. My fingers ached from the clenching at every new step. I began to pant, not through any great exertion but from pure dread. I ascended to a height greater than any tree I’d known. Then I was higher than the tallest spire of the greatest chapterhouse or castle in Europa, and still I climbed. I had foolishly begun to climb before Professor Queller had reached the top, so was too far along to make use of any rope that might be offered to me. I had only my toes and fingers to save me from plunging to my death.
By the time I reached the top, I was gasping for breath and trembled in all my limbs. Nik and Bessarion fairly dragged me to get me a few feet away from the edge, into the shade of a pine tree. Professor Queller gave me some water.
“That was a sturdy climb, young lady,” he said, “though a bit daring to try it without a support rope.”
Cosmas came up over the side as Queller said that.
“Had she slipped, I would have caught her,” Cosmas said, with such calm I did not doubt that he would have.
We all rested for a time. I suspect this was largely on my account. The rest and water quickly restored me, however. I reflected on my accomplishments. I had climbed a ladder two hundred feet tall (it felt like two thousand), had established my position in a company of males, and had undergone a mortifying ordeal that had violated my modesty but not my dignity.
Plus, I’d befriended an ogre.
The stream gathered itself into a deep pool before leaping over the precipice we had just scaled, uttering a pleasant little burble at the edge, as if the fall were only a game. The sun shone down genially, and a little breeze sent shimmers of light across the clear surface. Grass covered the ground, with reeds standing in clusters along the banks, while white alders stood behind, their arms decked in green. The day seemed suddenly so benign that it was hard to think of the austere canyon behind, or of the dark depths before us. I breathed in the pure alpine air, appreciating at last why doctors sent their patients into these mountains for a cure.
“This is so beautiful,” I said aloud. “It’s like a dream.”
No one responded. I instantly felt the inadequacy of the words. I was the simple Plattländer, who calls a hill of a few hundred feet a mountain. I was the converse of the country yokel chirping in amazement at the towers of a city. I was the city girl astounded by mountains and waterfalls. I might just as well have cried “Golly!” I resolved to be more restrained so as to appear more sophisticated.
I lay back on the soft grass and stared upward. The sun rode through a deep blue that was nearly unbroken by clouds, save a few that gathered like sheep around the heads of the tallest mountains. I grew warm, and started to drift into sleep. Already my body was learning to take advantage of any idle time.
Bessarion allowed us no time for napping, though. Without a word he stood and started off again.
“There he goes,” Niklot said. “We’d best follow.”
We left the stream and climbed a small rise. Before us spread an alp-one of the wide, lush meadows that give their name to the mountains themselves. Seen from afar, the alp looked like a blanket of green-in the summer, at least-dotted with patches of darker green that are stands of pine and poplar trees. We came closer, though, and found the blanket was wrinkled, draped over ravines and gullies thick with gorse and rowan and berry bushes, sometimes dry and sometimes with rivulets threading through tumbles of rock. These ravines could be surprisingly deep. They also made walking damnably difficult.
Professor Queller seemed downright jolly as he walked alongside Niklot, the two conversing quietly. I walked a few paces away. Cosmas again walked behind.
Two more hours of hiking followed, across the wide, undulating meadow. This was carpeted with light green grass, punctuated with lichen-covered rocks and decorated with blue monkshood and yellow gentian and columbine. Its width narrowed gradually. On our right, a tall curtain of granite rose skyward. To our left, the meadow sloped gradually down to the edge of the world.
“There it is,” Nik said. He was pointing at that gray curtain. Partway up, at least a hundred feet or more, a hole penetrated the granite, as if some giant had rammed a fist into it.
Before we went in that direction, though, Bessarion led us to the alp’s edge. Never has a sight made me so weak and giddy.
The alp ended with a ragged edge. The ground fell away vertically, hundreds of feet, so far down that the ground below was partially hidden by haze.
I looked over the side once, then backed up a yard or two. The others did likewise, save for Bessarion himself, who stood with his toe tips at the edge. A wind could have sent him over, but he stood unperturbed.
My gaze went farther. The alp faced more or less northerly. Somewhere in the near distance was Salzburg-I fancied I could spot the heights of Hohenwerfen, and even the valley of the Ister beyond. Even farther afield, out at the limit where pale green met pale blue, were the lands of my birth. Stralsund and the sandy hills of Brandenburg, the Baltic Sea beyond. For a moment I was terribly homesick, but only for a moment. Bessarion turned round and marched up the slope, we followed, and all thoughts of home vanished. Ahead stood the mountain, the cave, and the unknown.
Copyright © 2020 by Ellis L. “Skip’ Knox