Peregrin had come a long way, and found nothing. That is, nothing that mattered. There had been ruins, wild dogs, wild people and a few traces of evidence that humans had once been sane. No answers to his questions, however, and no place in which he felt settled.
The day had grown long, grey and damp. After a brief, cranberry sunrise, the sky regressed to a shade of moldy bread, smudged by a few surly clouds. Though it had not rained, the air seeped through his long coat and stuck to his skin. The woods through which he traveled intensified the dampness, causing his feet to slip on rock and leaf and giving his progress a sluggish feel, as though he were moving through thin curtains.
He surmised it was mid-spring. The undergrowth was thickening and many trees were flush with new leaves. The more ponderous trees, largely oaks and elms, had just begun their buds.
“The Archivist” by David Prenatt
Peregrin was following a watercourse as it tended downward from the hills he had crossed. There were still roads, but they were badly deteriorated, and since he did not know where he was going, there was no need to follow them.
The sloping ground became a steep hillside into which the stream had carved a ravine. He carefully picked his way down over jutting stone and moss-slicked fallen trees, leaning heavily on his stout walking staff, until he came upon a level swath running lengthwise along the hill in either direction. The stream he followed cut across it and then continued its descent, flowing into a slow rolling river below. On the far bank, the ground sloped upward as sharply as the side he was on. The level ground on which he stood, possibly an old road, stretched out parallel to the water in both directions.
Something nagged at Peregrins memory. He had traversed hundreds of miles since he had awakened in that dark place. The dust had been heavy and the air stifling. By instinct or luck, he made his way to a door that emerged into a tunnel. He was able to dig his way through a landslide that had largely covered the entrance and crawled into the light of day like a pup being born. Since then he had wandered for nearly a year, finding food and provisions as he went, not knowing what he sought.
Editor's Note: This is the first chapter of the novel "The Archivist" by our own correspondent, David Prenatt. A new chapter will be printed every few weeks. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I did.
"The Archivist" by David Prenatt can be purchased online from Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, eBay or any major bookseller. It can also be purchased direct from Tate Publishing and Enterprises, Mustang, Okla. Also, watch for book signing opportunities by the author in the area.
Now he paused. There was something familiar about this river, this path. The graceful sweep of the current, parting around small islands dotted with trees, murmured to him like an old song. The slope of the hillside he had come down, cradling the river and rising on the other side, gave him an odd comforting feeling, like he was nearly home. But he had no solid memory of having been here. This disconcerted him.
He had intended to follow the rivers current, but the feeling of familiarity he experienced nudged him to turn upstream. The trail was hard-packed, maybe having been paved once, and the vegetation was light. He frequently encountered rock slides, however, and other streams like the one he had followed, which slowed his progress.
When the sun passed beyond the horizon and the air grew somber with twilight, Peregrin stopped by a rockslide and gathered wood for a fire. He hollowed a niche out of the slag and built a small, well-hidden fire in it. The heat reflected off the rocks, giving him warmth he had not felt for some time, as he unrolled the old woven blanket he had found in an abandoned village.
He covered himself and leaned back against the slide. The sky was still overcast and there were no stars. "Enough of this grim weather," Peregrin said aloud. "Tomorrow I will see the sun." He sighed, pulled down his brimmed hat over his face and began to sink through the conscious thoughts and questions of the day toward the deep blue waters of sleep.
He slept well, better than he had in a while. Perhaps it was the continued warmth of the rocks, or the fact that he was well sheltered against the wind and chill by the slide. Or maybe it was the odd sense of familiarity which continued to persist.
He awoke before dawn, as he always did. Despite the many miles he covered each day, he found he needed little sleep. Sometimes he had had the impression he could just keep walking through the night, and sleep was something he must will himself to take. But that was absurd. Every human being needed sleep.
The sky gained light slowly, and he was disappointed to see the same grey ceiling stretching from horizon to horizon. The mist hung sullen, like a surly child who does not wish to rise. He rolled his blanket and kicked some stones over his campfire site. He did not feel like eating, so he picked up his staff and set out.
He had covered several miles by mid-morning, when the sky lightened abruptly and actual sunshine radiated the land. He smiled up at it. "I knew you would come. What took you so long?"
The sun did not remain in view for long, but it was enough to hearten him. The path he followed wended away from the river, following the hillside which rose steeper above him. On the other side of the path, however, the ground rolled out gently toward the water. He clambered over a particularly large slide and stopped. The ground here fanned out from the river into a wide area, and about 100 yards further, amidst the trees, he could see the ruins of human habitation.
Peregrin ducked down quickly. Though he had not seen any people, he had learned it was wise to be wary of ruins. Often there were squatters, half-crazed and wild, ready to attack anyone who dared approach. Also, he had discovered marauders, who used ruins as a base to roam the area, robbing and usually killing anyone they encountered.
He remained still, listening for about ten minutes. His hearing was exceptional, and his ability to discern sounds had saved him more than once. Hearing nothing unusual, he peered over the top of the slide.
The ruins appeared to have once been a fair - sized town. Through the undergrowth and trees he could see juts of brick and metal and stone for some distance. The ruins ran from the rivers edge right up to the base of the hillside. Nature had pulled down most of the buildings, and trees, vines, moss and soil had long since obscured much of the structures. Some buildings were still erect, probably constructed of brick or stone. Mostly, it looked like a collection of small hills and rubble. Still, there could be people there, burrowed into the mounds that had once been homes and businesses.
Peregrin remained still for nearly a half-hour, watching and alert for any movement before him or behind him. Sensing nothing, he quietly edged down the rockslide toward the water. When the rocks thinned out, he carefully picked his way across them and approached the ruins slowly, keeping behind cover of shrubs and trees. The rivers edge showed no signs of use by humans, no worn paths or stakes for tying up rafts. Birds continued their spring songs, squirrels scampered among the branches, and the sun edged its way out of the clouds again, illuminating the trees with shafts of gold.
He slipped from tree to tree, past the first collapsed buildings. The ruins looked the same from this side, with no sign of human occupation. He moved further along, keeping close to the river in case he needed to flee. He knew he could swim well and the current was slow, making for an easy escape. As he penetrated deeper, he could see that the ruins extended even further than he had thought. This made him even more wary. Ruins this extensive were sure to attract somebody, if anyone was left alive in this area.
Again, he listened carefully. The sounds were quite normal. He worked his way further up the river, keeping a close watch on those buildings which still stood. Still, there was no sign of human occupation. At one spot he discovered deteriorated concrete posts near the waters edge, possibly the remains of a dock, but the area showed no trace of recent use, no trampled grass, no slide marks in the mud where a boat may have been pulled up. The twisted metal shafts which still ejected from the concrete showed uniform rust, no abrasions from rope or chain.
He took nearly three hours to traverse the length of the ruins along the waterside. He was satisfied by then that no human had lived near the waters edge for years. The ruins tapered out finally, running along the base of the hillside, which had arced back toward the water and was nearly vertical by now, rising 40 or fifty feet above the ruins. He spent the next hour wending his way carefully up and backwards along the edge of the ruins. About 15 feet from the ground, a large shelf of rock jutted outward. Climbing to this outcrop, Peregrin found he could survey most of the ruins, while the steepness of the hill obscured his position from above.
He sat down on the outcrop and thought. Most of the ruins he had come across had been thoroughly ransacked by squatters and bandits. They were small, crumbling reminders of a world that no longer existed. But they always showed signs of habitation.
Here before him, however, was a large expanse of ruins that appeared untouched by anything except nature. That in itself was very strange. The hills he had crossed in the past weeks descended toward this river, the land was fertile, there was abundant animal life and the water was good. He could think of no good reason why human beings would not have found these ruins and occupied them.
Peregrin took a packet from his pocket and carefully unwrapped the cloth. It contained a few radishes, wild onions and strips of jerked beef from the last village in which he had stayed. He had taught the people there how to smoke their meat to preserve it, for which they had been grateful. He had not told them that he had no idea how he knew the process. The information he shared simply came to him shortly before he passed it on. This was all he had left to eat, but he never ate much anyway.
He slowly chewed on a piece of the beef for a while and considered the ruins. The day was stretching into late afternoon, and he was tired from his cautious exploration. Now was the time to rest, and think. A fire would feel good, but he was still uneasy about finding no people in the area. It would be better to spend a cold night, he thought, than to attract attention.
"If these ruins were truly untouched," Peregrin thought, "I may have found a goldmine." There could be blankets, clothes, tools, even preserved food beneath the decaying hulks. And if no one were around, he could stay for some time, carefully excavating the mounds as he chose.
Unexpectedly, the feeling of familiarity washed over him again. It was even stronger than he had experienced upon the old trail. It was not deja vu; it was more like kinship, a feeling of belonging here. "Why yes," he thought, "maybe this will be my home. Maybe I will find whatever it is I am searching for here."
That thought pleased him greatly. With a sigh he leaned back against a tree and closed his eyes. Sunbeams were slanting through the trees from the west and the birds were singing pleasantly. The sounds of the wood seemed almost like a gentle song, assuring him that he could rest from his wanderings. This might be a place to call home. He began to think of his wanderings. When he had awakened in utter darkness, he had no concept of his identity. He did not know where, who or even what he was. All he knew was that he was. He had no memories of anything with which to judge his experience. He did not even realize that the darkness deprived him of sight.
Still, he was spurred to move. Even as he crawled, information began processing in his mind. He became aware of space and distance, of sound and touch. It suddenly occurred to him that it was dark, and this was not the usual state of affairs. He became aware of direction, and height and depth.
Then he had found a door. As he rose up on his feet and felt its surface and handle, his mind told him door, and he suddenly knew that it led somewhere. He found a large bolt and knowing what to do, he pulled it loose. He pushed the handle and leaned his weight against it. It resisted, but finally gave way, and he passed through it to find a stairway. He made his way upward, found another door at the top, opened this one and passed into place of stone.
Here, Peregrin had his first experience of sight. There was very dim light coming from somewhere. He saw he was in a small, rough tunnel cut through rock, which ended beyond his door, leaving only one direction to go, sloping upward. As he made his way, the light grew stronger. He could see ahead that the tunnel ended abruptly, closed off by large stones and rubble. The light came through a small hole some ten feet up. He climbed the pile and dug at the stones and loose earth. The light was blinding at first, but his eyes adjusted as he dug the hole wider until it was barely more than a foot across. He rested a moment, and then attempted to squeeze through the hole.
It had truly been an experience of birth. The stones would give no more and he had to struggle and squirm until nearly exhausted before he pulled himself through all the way. And there, lying on a hillside, sweating in the full radiance of the afternoon sun, he saw the world.
Sensation bombarded him from all directions, and knowledge swirled in his mind. The roll of the hills around him, the tired green leaves on the trees, tinged and speckled with gold and red, the smells of plants and grains nearing fruition, the wind with just an edge of chill, a nearby stream running fast, all told him that he was somewhere in the northeastern part of this land during the advance of autumn. These names and words simply appeared in his mind in response to what he saw, heard, touched, smelled and felt.
He stayed a while near the place. From the outside, he was able to widen the hole enough to go back inside and explore. Whatever he discovered in that dark place, he brought into the tunnel. He found a long overcoat and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat that fit him well, leading him to conclude that it had belonged to him. He found a stout oak walking staff and a canteen in one corner. But his most surprising find was a backpack, in which he found a rain-slicker, dried food, a can opener, a folding knife with a five-inch blade, three stout candles and (this astounded him the most), a lighter and a can of fuel.
"Looks like I was planning on going somewhere," Peregrin said aloud. He lit a candle and went back in for a better look.
He found only the room in which he had awakened. He had lain on a table in an open metal box with padded sides. The walls and floor were a white metal. There was very little else there, except a cabinet against one wall. Opening it, he found some canned foods. "That explains the can opener," he thought. There were also two screwdrivers, a hammer, a chisel, a hatchet, a whetstone, and a small folding saw. That was all.
He took these into the tunnel. As he carefully packed everything, he thought how strange it was that he knew each items name and function, but had no idea who put them there or when. Knowledge came to him, it seemed, on a need-to-know basis.
So it had gone as he wandered. Each day brought new experiences which in turn provided him with new knowledge of its meaning. It was as though his mind was a library and his encounters were hands that selected different books.
Still, nothing he encountered sparked any memories. He had no recollection of where he had come from, why he was in that underground bunker, or what had happened to the world. He had a vague recollection that there had once been a vast society with great machines and tools through which it mastered the world. He found ruins of small towns, often burned and completely ransacked. Also, there were larger, thoroughly scorched areas, where great skeletal structures rose up, twisted and black from a thick bedding of ash and rubble, devoid of any signs of life. Peregrin called them dead zones and avoided these places.
He met few people. Sometimes he encountered small tribes of people who, though suspicious of strangers, offered him guarded hospitality, but could tell him little. In return, he shared bits of knowledge of shelter, clothing and farming to help them survive. But he found but no satisfaction for his searching, and continued to wander after a time.
He traveled south, using the sun as his compass. The gentle rolling foothills soon rose into hulking, forest-dense hill-country. A mighty river threaded its way through them and he followed it as it broadened. Unexpectedly, the trees thinned out and Peregrin found himself surveying a dead zone. Gray, silty ground pocked with twisted mounds of debris stretched far and away before him. Though the vegetation was attempting to reclaim this land, he could see that the fire that had caused it had been massive and unchecked. He turned aside from this sight and headed eastward.
The land continued to rise in massive hills. Every now and then, Peregrin came across ruins of towns in which he would search for anything useful. He learned to steer clear of squatters who shambled, mumbling, and who would usually fly at him screaming, to drive him from their claim. It was in one of these ruined towns that he encountered bandits and learned something new.
He had cautiously entered from the west end of the ruins, and finding no one, proceeded to investigate some of the more erect buildings for food and provisions. Emerging from one half-collapsed structure, he found his way blocked by four men. He could tell by their stance and demeanor that they were quite sane, and quite dangerous.
"Well, looky here boys," said one, a stocky, well-muscled fellow. His beard was bushy and wild, his clothes were tattered and he wore a greasy, brimmed hat. "We gots a trespisser in our house."
"Theevin skunk by the looks of him Crown," said a taller, lean man. He was toying with a stout club, banded with iron on one end.
"I'm sorry," Peregrin said. "I did not know this was your home. I'll pass on." He took a step but the men did not move.
"Nawp," said Crown. "Can't letcha do thet. This here is our land all around and we aims to keep it. Can't comes through here without payin us a toll."
"I have nothing to give you," Peregrin said.
"Sure ya does," Crown replied. "You gots a fine, fancy jacket, food, thet nice pack full of stuff, and your life." He drew a large hunting knife made of steel and bone from behind his back. The other men had smaller knives and clubs. They stepped toward Peregrin. "Nuthin persnol," Crown said. "Jest how we makes our living."
Peregrin was not afraid. Quite the contrary, he began to seethe. He had found so few people, and it angered him that there were still those who would hurt and kill for their own purposes without a second thought. They deserved to be punished. His staff felt warm and comfortable in his hand. He let his pack slip off his shoulder and to the ground.
They rushed him. The tall man on the left was a step closer and Peregrin spun to the side, bringing his staff around low and graceful as he did so to sweep the mans feet out from under him. The tall man went flying. Without pausing, Peregrin continued his turn, twirling the staff to bring it, butt-end, into the abdomen of the next man, even as he turned. He doubled over, as the staff came around and cracked the side of his head. He collapsed.
Crown snarled as he and the fourth man rushed Peregrin again. An easy sidestep, a twirl of the staff, and the fourth man fell as the staff crashed onto the top of his head. Crown, meanwhile stumbled as his lunge found only air.
Peregrin turned toward him, feeling balanced and calm like a cat. Crown came in slowly, feinting with his knife. Peregrin could hear the tall man rising behind him and knew Crown would try to keep him occupied as the tall man snuck up on him. He pretended not to know he was there until Crown cried "Now!" and lunged forward.
Peregrin dropped into a crouch and swiveled, holding the center of his staff firmly against his chest. The ends of the staff caught both men across the legs and they flew into each other. Rolling free, he saw that Crowns knife had caught the tall man in the neck and he was down, bleeding profusely. Crown rose and charged, screaming. This time, Peregrin did not sidestep, but planted himself and as Crown came up he brought the staff upward in a diagonal arc, connecting with Crowns temple. Crown flipped backward and lay still in a heap.
Peregrin retrieved his pack. Crowns knife lay in the grass and he picked it up. It was old, but in fine shape. He tucked it in his pack and headed out. He had just learned he could fight, and fight well.
And so he had continued wandering. As the weather began to turn cold, he came upon a village of about 35 people living on the banks of a broad river. They lived in huts of lashed wood poles covered with animal skin, sod or any other material they could find. They ate vegetables, roots, a gritty, flat bread they made from rye wheat, and tended a small stock of cattle and pigs. They were suspicious of him, even fearful, but not violent. He presented Crowns knife to the headman, Jaspar, and this was seen as a great deed.
He stayed with them for most of the winter, showing them how to build stronger shelters by shaving the sides of the logs, stacking them between upright supports and chinking them with clay. He taught them to slaughter and preserve their meat, and to build a smokehouse. He built a small grain mill by constructing a large wooden funnel-shaped frame. He shaped five flat, round stones of varying sizes with his chisel and bored a hole in the center of each. These he placed on top of one another with the smallest at the bottom where the funnel narrowed. He placed a shaft through the stones and affixed the second and fourth stone to the shaft so that they would move when the handle of the shaft was turned, grating against the other three stones. Wheat and corn, which was then poured into the funnel, had to work its way through the five stones before pouring out of the bottom. This produced finer flour and made the bread much more palatable.
Peregrin awoke one morning in late winter, as the ground became soggy and the air warm. It was time to move on, he suddenly knew. The headman became distraught and begged him to stay, but to no avail. The villagers presented him with food and clothing articles they had made. As he turned to go, Jaspar blocked his way. He looked at him solemnly, then handed him Crowns knife, now wrapped in a leather sheath, decorated with feathers. A woman of the tribe came forth, took it and girded it onto Peregrins waist, using two long leather straps from the sheath.
"We will not forget the name of Peregrin," Jaspar said. With that, Peregrin set out.
He swung northward in his travels, following the river, not knowing why or what drove him. Parting from the river after four days travel, he tended east, through rising hills that slowed his progress. He took his time, wandering, and wondering.
And now he was here, and for the first time, he felt no urge to keep moving. Perhaps the answers he needed would be found here. Perhaps, he had found his home. Perhaps.
Peregrin awoke with a start. It was night. His clothes were wet from the damp and he was quite chilled. But he did not move. "How dangerous to be lulled asleep in plain daylight," he thought. He listened carefully. The sounds of the night were steady, crickets, small animals scrabbling in the brush, twigs falling to the ground. Nothing seemed out of place. He remained still until he was sure there was no malicious presence lurking nearby or stealthily sneaking upon him. Then he quietly unrolled his blanket and wrapped himself in it. He shifted his position slightly and remained alert for nearly an hour, listening to the night, before he fell asleep once more.