It was raining as Levy and Daisy trudged over the crest of the ridge approaching the small hamlet where Daisy lived. Immediately Levy was able to see the scope of the task facing him. He paused, arms cocked on his hips, then turned to Daisy.
“How long has the water level been that high?”
“I don’t know,” she responded grimly. “It wasn’t that high when I left to get you. Perhaps a day, maybe less.” She looked up into the weeping sky, underscoring the urgency of their plight.
“Don’t worry,” Levy responded, staring down into the valley, looking for what he hoped would be there. “I’ll have the water level down in no time. The dam will hold.”
Daisy nodded, and they started down the slope into the village.
As they descended Levy continued to scan the valley. He could not see what he was looking for, however, and the trees soon swallowed up the view. The path moved now in gloom, tall pines rising up all around. As they descended they passed two couples, trudging up the road, pushing or pulling carts laden with household goods. Daisy greeted them by name, but they merely nodded, saving their breath for the arduous climb.
The rain washed down and down, carrying the grey earth downhill ahead of the pair. Mud squished out from under Levy’s boots, and more than once he stumbled as a foot slid out from underneath him. After almost a bell the pair finally emerged into a clearing. Huts stood around a central well made of stone. Two more carts stood in the commons, as people packed to flee the impending flood. Daisy led Levy across the commons to a larger hut, then knocked twice. The door opened, and a burly man emerged.
“Well met, Daisy,” he said, examining Levy curiously.
“Well met, Elder Tanner,” she replied, greeting him with a hug. She turned to Levy. “This is Levy, of Barel. I’ve brought him to save the village.”
Levy stepped forward. “Well met, Elder Tanner.”
“Well met, Levy Barel,” Tanner replied. His eyes examined Levy’s face appraisingly.
“I understand that Smith Balder built the dam,” Levy said, “and kept it up until his recent death.”
“Yes, and for too long we took for granted that he would live forever,” Tanner replied ruefully. “Had we known how ill he was, we would have sought your aid sooner. But now he is gone, and the secret of working the floodgates is gone with him.”
“I know something of smithy, and of Smith Balder’s work,” Levy stated confidently. “I think I can discern how the gates work, and relieve some of the pressure on the dam.”
Tanner looked skeptical. “Then you’d best hurry. The gates are closed, but the river’s up anyway — that means the dam’s leaking, and could go at any time.”
Levy’s stomach knotted at those words, but he smiled and nodded nonetheless.
“I’ll be leading him to Smith Balder’s place now,” Daisy said. Tanner nodded.
“Best hurry. Your family has already sought high ground. You should join them.” He looked Levy in the eye. “Don’t do anything foolish, young man,” he admonished. “If that dam goes, it’ll wash away the whole valley, Balder’s place too.”
“I’ll be careful,” commented Levy.
Tanner nodded. “If the water rises suddenly, don’t wait. Drop everything and start running uphill.” He affixed Levy’s eyes solemnly.
“I will,” Levy assured him, and the two left.
Daisy had arrived in Barel two days before, in late afternoon. It hadn’t been raining then, but the ground was saturated after days of showers. Fall always brought rain, and it had been raining for a sennight. Levy had known about Balder’s Dam, as both the village and the dam were known, but had only been there once, five years before. He had been traveling as an apprentice to Barel’s former blacksmith, and had visited to see the famed Balder smithy. Balder was already an old man, with no children. Levy had been shown fantastic machines and wonderful tools, but Balder had been very sparing with his secrets. Levy had recognized some of them — he had been to Dargon for schooling, and had learned many secrets about water and iron, wood and rope. But many of the combinations Balder made eluded the casual eye, and Balder would have no snooping. Levy had left impressed, but little wiser.
As they made the long walk from Barel to Balder, Daisy talked of the old smith. He had been found dead the week before the rain started. He had always been the one to work the great sluice-gates on Balder’s Dam, and had allowed no one else to know their secrets. The townsfolk just assumed that he would tell someone before he died, but that had not happened. When the rain came, the gates were not open, and now the dam was leaking. Daisy knew of Levy through Levy’s sister, and had come to seek his help. The new blacksmith consented to send him, and so Levy was here now, to do what he could.
Before the pair even reached the Balder’s smithy Levy knew they had arrived. Towering above the trees was Balder’s icon; a huge, skeletal statue of himself. It had been there when Levy had visited before, and it was the one thing that stuck in Levy’s mind. Now it could be seen through the treetops.
“… be going back now,” Daisy was saying. “I’ve got to go meet up with my family, on the ridgetop.” She was staring at him intensely.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be alright. Hopefully I’ll be up to bring you all down soon.”
“Be careful,” she repeated, but her eyes sparkled. “The smartest men in the village have looked at those gates, and they couldn’t figure it out.”
“Don’t worry, I will.” Levy was troubled more by the look in those eyes than by the immediate peril. She suddenly hugged him, then turned and hurried away. He stood a moment, startled, and then headed for the old smithy.
The smithy was actually a series of large barns and sheds, filled with blackened metal and discarded machines. In the center stood the great statue, blind eyes focused on a distant hill. Levy stared at it a long moment, contemplating its massive, articulated limbs, then hurried up the path to the dam. It was an earthen dam, constructed years before either Levy or his father was born. To one side stood the sluice gates. The path led directly to them. Below, at the base, Levy could see even now that water was flowing out from the base of the great earthen dam. The gates were large, wooden structures, strengthened with great iron bars and bolts. Beside them, built into the face of the dam, was a shed. In the gloom, Levy could not see into the shed until he was actually inside. He stood for a moment, allowing his eyes to adjust.
In the center of the shed was a large, iron cylinder, man-high and twice as wide. At its base was an opening. Levy peered inside the opening, but could see nothing in the gloom. The sharp odor of ashes pierced his nostrils. Scorn arose at the ignorance of whoever had tried to use this as a stove. Levy clucked his tongue at all those who lacked his own knowledge of mechanical things. When the thought occurred that he also might not have the knowledge to work this mechanism, he pushed it aside.
The top of the cylinder was a large iron plate, with two flanges on either side. Iron chains were hooked to the flanges, and ran through pulleys cemented to the floor, then out to the gates. On the floor were three other sets of chains, one for each gate. This part was obvious — somehow the cylinder was supposed to lift the plate, pulling the chains and raising the gates. But how?
Levy walked around the cylinder, carefully examining it. In the dark it was impossible, so he took a mene to light a torch from his tinder kit. By the light of that flame, he circled the massive device, looking for clues. There was a plug on the front that screwed into the front of the cylinder, with a square hole to accept a key, which was hanging by a cord off a post in the shed wall. When the well-greased plug was removed, Levy tried to see inside, but only saw a few glimmers. The cylinder was hollow, but Levy could not tell what, if anything, was inside. He could feel his own frustration and anxiety rising.
Levy changed his tack. Perhaps there were other ways of raising the gates. He left his torch in the shed and walked outside. Water was running down around the edge of the thick doors, following the easiest path to freedom. Levy quickly picked out the ratchet system which would hold the gates up once they were raised, but no other clues existed to show how to raise them.
An expression of sudden hope came to Levy’s face, and he ran back down the path to the workshops. He searched the wood pile and soon found a maul and wedge. He chugged back up to the gates and set the wedge into the crack at the base of the gates. He knew that the water pressure was the only thing actually sealing the gates, and if he could release a bit of that, he could get some water flowing. The first blow bounced the iron wedge out of the crack, sending it skittering away on the stone paving. Levy reset it, and struck again. A fountain of water geysered up, drenching and chilling him. The wedge held, and he struck again through the fountain of water. This time the blast of water knocked him back and dislodged the wedge. The gate slammed shut again, shaking the lintels. Levy gasped and puffed, shaking the water out of his hair. He arose, realizing for the first time the enormity of his task.
He set the maul down and returned to the hut, where his torch still burned. Getting to his knees, he examined the space under the cylinder. Ashes were there, and the curved floor of the cylinder. To each side were openings. Levy suddenly realized that the cylinder stood on three, wide legs — the opening was merely the space between the two front ones. His face burned in unseen embarrassment at his own ignorance. He sat for a moment and pondered, but could think of nothing. He got up, extinguished the torch, shouldered his pack, and headed down to the complex.
Balder’s house was a mass of crude models with stacks of flat wooden panels with hastily drawn images of parts and schematics. Levy sat for a long time, examining everything. Some things he could understand — a multi-horse plow was simple, for example, as was a wind-powered water pump. But others were mere shapes and symbols, made by a mind that knew what it was seeing, and didn’t need detailed explanations to remind it. As the afternoon drew on, Levy rubbed his eyes and propped his head on his hands, frustrated.
He could just see the man, in his mind, working on these parts. Levy felt like he was looking over the smith’s shoulder, seeing clearly each movement, but not understanding how they all fit together. Levy wondered if some day he himself would be leaving scratchings and doodles behind for some poor apprentice to decode.
“If I had a son, I could teach him,” Levy could imagine Balder saying, “but I don’t, and I’ll not show those villagers anything! Can’t have them stealing my secrets!”
Levy shook his head. What use were secrets, anyway? Knowledge was only good if it helped someone, or brought in money. His family had its secrets, to be sure, but they were practical secrets, like where the vein of gold ore was that had helped build the family wealth, or where the source of the local stream was.
“Why couldn’t you just get an apprentice, like me?” He wanted to ask the old man. He could see those old eyes, suspicious and narrow, looking back at him.
“You can’t trust an apprentice,” he replied, in Levy’s mind. “Always running off when something better or shinier shows its head. I can’t be chasing down some apprentice every time he runs away!”
“But a villager! Just show a villager! It’s their village that’s threatened!”
“Bah! Ignorant townsfolk! They don’t appreciate my work! If they really wanted to know they could have come and asked me! I’ve been here since before most of them were born!”
“It’s no use arguing with him,” Levy thought to himself. “His mind’s made up. I might as well go back home.”
“You can’t leave!” the old man shrieked. “You have to figure it out! It’s your job!”
“No it’s not! My job is back in Barel! I don’t belong here — this isn’t my problem!”
“Of course it’s your problem! Or aren’t you smart enough to figure it out?”
“I can figure it out!” But Levy could feel in his heart that the old man was right, that for all his confidence, he would never figure out how the machines worked, that all this knowledge was gone for good, dead with the old smith.
“No!!” Balder was going wild, swinging his cane around like a crazy man. He hit a shelf laden with plates, sending it crashing to the floor with a loud bang.
as if struck, the crashing sound still echoing in his ears. He had fallen asleep in the old smith’s cabin, and had dreamed the whole conversation. But the noise was real. There were loud snapping sounds coming from outside. Levy dashed out the door just in time to see a shed fold up and collapse. He ran toward it, then stopped. The stream issuing from the base of the dam was now a torrent, overrunning its banks. It had invaded the smithy, claiming its first victim. Levy ran for the path to the dam, then stopped. The ground under his feet was trembling. Levy turned instead for the cabin, grabbing his pack. He then headed straight up the hillside beside the dam, trying to put as much distance between himself and the coming flood as possible.
Levy had time to spare, once he reached the top of the hill. Below the water was already pouring over the top of the sluice gates, effectively rendering any possible solution moot. But the dam held for several long menes more, until the stream of water cut deep enough into the unprotected earthen face to undermine the dam’s strength. Then, with a deep rumble, the whole massive structure sagged, molten, and poured down the valley. The lake turned from grey to brown to white, and the rumble became a roar. A hill of water rushed down the valley, hiding trees and boulders and buildings beneath a muddy froth. When it reached the complex it smashed all the buildings, consuming them. The statue stood a moment longer, then tipped on one leg and toppled. The last Levy saw of it was one articulated arm, flailing above the swirling waters. After that Levy just stared at the muddy rush in a sodden funk.
“Don’t feel bad.”
Levy started, spinning about. It was Balder’s voice, but when he turned it was Daisy’s face. She was wet and muddy, but whole.
“What?” He blurted out, startled. “How did you get here?”
“When I saw my family was safe I came back for you. I couldn’t find you, though, so I climbed to safety.” She looked out over the destruction. “I said don’t feel bad that you couldn’t figure it out. My father tried for days to figure it out, but couldn’t.”
“But your whole village is gone,” Levy exclaimed, waving at the brown wash below.
“Balder built most of that village,” she replied. “We moved there before I was born, but now we’ll just move back to the old village in the hills. It’s still there — I go there sometimes in the summer, to tend the flocks and think.”
“But your homes, your things, …”
“We have our things with us, and we can build another home. The most important thing is that we have our families. We can build again.”
Levy stared down at the morass below. “None of this would have happened if Balder had had a family, to tell his secrets to.”
Daisy shrugged. “Secrets aren’t everything. Your family is what’s important. That’s what lasts.”
Levy didn’t entirely agree, but didn’t respond. Instead he asked, “So how do we get down?”
“We don’t, until the water recedes. We’ll have to stay here for a while, unless we want to walk all the way around the back of the lake.”
“No, we can wait. It’s just as fast.” So they sat and watched the lake empty. As the shore gradually receded, Levy noted that a series of rectangular patterns emerged, laid out on the lakebed. When the lake had formed, a village had been flooded, only to reemerge as the lake now died. The cycle continued despite him, despite them all. Birth and death, creation and destruction. It was a small consolation, but a consolation nonetheless. Their part in the cycle complete, Daisy and Levy watched as the day ended, waiting for the sunrise and a chance to move on.