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The Grinning Shark

In my first major effort to accumulate wealth and power (and ultimately to attract attention) I picked a place in a forested glen near a small stream up in the hills that had a deposit of clay. Land here wasn't "owned" outside the immediate vicinity of town - if you could hold it it was yours. I took to spending about half of every week there, while still working out (and fishing enough with Graber as basically a deckhand) to earn my keep.

With hand tools brought from earth I cut small trees and built a wheelbarrow and forms. With the wheelbarrow and a shovel I dug clay and formed it into bricks, which I baked in a kiln made of unbaked bricks. With the bricks I built a furnace and around the furnace I built a forge with a roof covered in clay and thatching. This took the better part of two great moons, three months Earth time. I had several good hammers including a small sledge, and all kinds of woodworking tools, and some hand pliers, and a hacksaw with several blades, but no other relevant tools of the smithy.

For metal I had the swords of the bravos we had killed, various small scraps of wrought iron Graber and Brand had accumulated, and several hundredweight pigs of cast iron (obtained secretly from the ever eager to help Hassan -- for quite a price). The iron came from ore dug nearby in the mountains, but a local (highly corrupt, according to Hassan) guild controlled access and for the moment I was content with this. Hassan also acted as a middleman to set the guild looking for a number of other metals and substances I expected to need - tin, copper, antimony, sulphur, lead, and so on. Some of these were known and readily available, but some of them I had to describe. Fortunately, Mirath was highly volcanic (probably because of its extreme tides that constantly strained and heated its crust) and hence metals and metal ores of all sorts were quite plentiful, if mostly unexploited. I built a passable bellows out of goat skin with a clay nozzle.

Armed with historical craft books on hand (and much of the wikipedia and a huge database of articles snarfed from the web and stored on a couple of hard disks I'd brought along with both my old and my new laptop) that described alloy compositions and methods of forging metals I went to work. My longest pliers were none too long and my goatskin gloves none too thick but I managed to turn the swords, which already had something of the right shape, into proper metal working pincers and pliers, using a pig as a crude and somewhat soft anvil. I also made some practice pieces out of the books. The work was interesting and actually easier (with the right tools) than making the mail shirt had been, but my goal was not to become a smith and make wrought iron or cast iron implements for the rest of my life.

I could make steel, I knew, one of several ways from the locally available iron, which invariably had too much or too little carbon and hence was either too soft or too brittle. The first was to make a regular steel mill with a Bessemer process crucible in a forced-air blast furnace. Burn off all the carbon with the forced air, then add it back in precise amounts. That seemed a little extreme for a cottage industry, though eventually (with other people's money and other people's labor and real coal I hoped to discover) I planned to do just that. First, however, I needed a few things like a stable, capitalist, democratic government, police protection from all the guilds I was going to bust, and a fair chunk of money and power to grease the wheels of the above. Roughly three or four thousand years of progress from a similar state of society on Earth. I hoped to get it done in three or four.

There were several ways of making a low carbon steel with only charcoal as a heat and carbon source by heating small chunks of pig iron interlaced with charcoal in a forced air fire to remove the excess carbon, or alternatively heating wrought iron (from which most of the carbon has been removed) with charcoal to reintroduce a controlled amount. My mail shirt was made this latter way without the forced air (and barely qualified as steel). I could manage this in either direction in my existing furnace, but the rather crude steel made from charcoal in this way would be barely adequate for working into knives, harpoon heads, spear heads, or arrow heads (although a vast improvement over either wrought or cast iron).

Steel wasn't entirely unknown in Ushta. The very wealthy could afford weaponry made of a fairly high carbon steel that was imported at great cost to Ushta from the island of Geshta over the sea (made in turn out of imported Ushtan iron), where the secret of manufacture was jealously guarded. Little did they know their monopoly was doomed. Heh, heh.

The third way dates back on earth a thousand years or so. It also originally used charcoal instead of coal converted to coke, which was convenient. It makes a very high carbon steel, but it is amazingly supple and strong instead of brittle, after proper tempering. The main thing that it requires is very careful regulation of the temperature and a lot of hand forging.

I didn't have a book on this (though my laptop-based encyclopedia did have a nice picture of a Bessemer process blast furnace) but as it happened Julie, my sword, was made out of Damascus steel (also known as watered steel), and I happened to have grabbed articles containing instructions in at least in rough terms, how to make it from the Internet before leaving. It goes like this.

You make a small bundle of low carbon wrought iron broken out of its slag into small pieces. You put it and a roughly equal volume of powdered charcoal and some sand (for silicon and phosphorus) in a sealed ball of clay, and let it dry through. Then you heat it in a hot, but lightly forced or unforced fire at cherry red temperatures overnight. If you build a big fire, you can do several pigs at once. If you build a small ``furnace'', you can conserve wood or charcoal and get more even heat.

The next day you let the fire naturally die down, and when the clay is cool, you break it open. Inside is more slag from the glass and impurities and a piece of somewhat spongy high carbon steel that I was going to hope was like ``wootz steel'', originally made only in certain places in south India, from which it was shipped to Damascus, with a very unusual structure. The carbon has entered the metal in the form of tiny crystals of Fe$_3$C (cementite) surrounded by a matrix of ordinary steel with much less carbon. To get proper Damascus steel, certain trace elements (such as vanadium) need to be present as well; I was going to have to take my chances with that in the local ore.

It's still not forged Damascus steel and it's still not a blade. You have to take the ingot of steel, and heat it in your forge to a relatively cold dull red. This is just enough to soften the softer steel without driving the carbon out it or the ultra-hard crystals. If you overheat it, you break down this heterogeneous crystal structure and get the usual uniform high carbon steel that, because of the large amounts of carbon present, is inevitably brittle. If you under-heat it, you won't be able to work it properly. Then you take your hammer and your anvil, and beat the loving Jesus out of the steel. You draw it out into a long piece, then fold it back, and repeat, much the way that a pastry chef would make filo dough but a lot hotter - every fold doubles the number of layers and increases the fineness of the layer granularity. This creates a lot of layers of steel consisting of those Fe$_3$C cementite crystals and the critical impurities, all welded together by the matrix of lower carbon steel.

If you want it to be maximally pretty (and you get lucky on the trace metal content of the iron) you cut or forge shallow grooves across the blade (defects to nucleate crystal alignment) and beat and forge it some more to make them go away. Eventually, the layers of high and low carbon steel (which have different colors, with high carbon being white and the lower carbon being black) form a crystalline tracery on the forged object called ``Mohammed's ladder''. If you aren't so lucky, you'll get a greyish steel blade where the cementite particles are distributed more uniformly - still a very hard, very functional blade but not as pretty.

Either way, the very high carbon steel is very, hard, but brittle. However, it's brittleness is no concern because each tiny piece is too small to propagate defects and shatter and is welded tightly into a softer but more flexible lower carbon steel. If the layers are done just right, an edge put on the blade has ultra-hard microserrations associated with the crystal layers and will cut the hell out of anything it is drawn across, much like those ``laser cut'' no-sharpen tomato knives you can buy on TV but with serrations much too small to see.

If you are a skilled craftsman, your flawless blade is done just as the forging is done, so you heat the whole blade one last time to a very uniform and relatively cold temperature, and quench it in oil. Some masters use a clay coating to ensure a very even distribution of temperatures. A modern craftsman might use a bath of molten salts to achieve the same thing. Then gentle grinding to wear off a surface layer of ordinary steel that can precipitate out on the outside and to create an edge, affixing a pommel and guard, buffing on a real edge, and a final bath in weak acid to bring out the pattern (if any).

Now to be fair, the blades produced in this way aren't really any better in terms of hardness and toughness than the steel blades made out of ordinary steel mixes, and aren't as good as ``supersteel'' blades made out of the most advanced alloys, that use things like tungsten and other metals in precise quantities. There is no magic here, and science and modern metallurgy really does (eventually) surpass the accidental discoveries of swordsmiths a thousand years or so ago. However, they are damn good for a primitive culture and if you do them right, they are the most beautiful blades in the world. I wouldn't trade Julie's watered steel blade for anything.

I had the help of a young kid, a couple of years older than Arto, who I took on as a sort of ``apprentice''. His name was Onedtatakar. I called him Ned. Ned had worked for about six years bonded to one of the local blacksmiths in Sind-a-Lay. Alas, said smith failed to pay his squeeze to the local guards, or otherwise offended somebody somehow because one fine night the smithy caught on fire and burned to the ground along with the smith, his apprentices and his family. It was apparently common knowledge that most of the above were already dead at the time.

Ned was lucky - he was away with a cart and mule in the hills, picking up a load of ore from the miners there. None of the other smiths had any desire to hire him as he wasn't a real apprentice and knew none of his previous employer's secrets (or so they thought). Brand knew him and liked him and had kept him alive with small jobs here and there and was overjoyed to pass him on to me. Ned helped me build the forge and the furnace and (as it turned out) was a sharp young man who had learned a lot more than people gave him credit for while pumping the bellows, sweeping out the smithy, breaking up ore with a crude hammer, cleaning the outhouse, and doing all sorts of gofer jobs.

From the beginning, he had more of an aptitude for forming iron and steel into useful objects than I did, he knew the ``business'' (where and how to obtain raw materials, how much to pay, and so forth). The books and papers I had brought were better than a decade of full apprenticeship in any smithy on the planet, especially since I wanted him to learn the ``secrets'' instead of jealously guarding them. A meal ticket, a place to sleep, and the prospect of being a master smith one day, were enough to enlist his enthusiastic cooperation.

Ned loved the work and loved it that I bought him ales after work and was actually nice to him and respectful of him in other ways and was infinitely proud of the first dagger we made together, with a crude but visible Mohammed's ladder running like fine lace across the blade (apparently my wootz was ``close enough'' to the original, although it took months of effort and many, many tries for both of us to make things that were really beautiful and properly strong). I gave it to him ceremonially after we fixed a crossguard and crena-skin covered hilt onto the tempered blade. It was tough, it held a wicked edge (I buffed the edge on, using powdered clay for rouge and a foot powered homemade wheel), and it was Damascus steel (or close enough), the first this world had ever produced.

After the dagger, Ned started to make harpoon heads on long steel shafts for Graber to trade with the porpoises, arrow heads, steel link mail, and relatively few watered steel swords for Graber and Arto and Brand and (eventually) trade. They were crude when compared to Julie or my saber, but they were tough and held a good edge.

Eventually I dickered out a deal with Rendar and Brand, and Brand's tavern became something of a steel and worked metal product retailer, since setting all this up took a great deal of my creni-tooth capital (and some of my private imported stash) and I needed to make money. The town lacked a real swordsmith and a lot of its weaponry was imported, and pretty shoddy quality at that; I figured Rendar would be all for it, as long as he got his cut. I was planning to talk to Hassan soon about export possibilities, since I would be cutting into his import business and didn't want to make enemies unless I had to.

Lest I seem too warlike, I should note that I introduced Ned to ways of making non-weapons-grade steel and sundry items such as the steel hinge for doors, steel belt buckles, steel cooking pots, steel locks, steel (cut) nails. We had started developing improved steel tools - things like drill bits and saws and axeheads were not unknown but of highly indifferent tempering and toughness. And silverware.

We made a lot of the "trade goods" here out of a more standard light steel by just making wrought iron, melting it in a crucible, and adding a controlled amount of carbon with a bit of this and that. The result was vastly better than wrought iron or cast iron or even the brittle steel or bronze used to make swords, although it wasn't an ideal sword steel. We had plans for other alloys such as pewter and brass as well, but at first steel occupied all our time.

I spent a lot of time and resources developing all this, because in addition to a source of local income I needed tools to make the tools to make the tools I expected to make to create an industrial revolution, in case I was unsuccessful in learning about gates and ended up having to live on Mirath the rest of my life. I devoted a bit of time to a few other potentially profitable manufacturies as well. I hired day-labor from Brand's extended staff to make loads of bricks and glazed tiles once a week or so, which were immensely popular once I demonstrated what one could do with them. In association with that I built a small cement factory to make cement and mortar, using my kiln to reduce limestone brought back at no small risk from the edge of the plains to the south. Of course I also kept up my exercises and tried to go out fishing with Graber when I could.

Eventually, I'd been on Mirath over a year and a half and had spent well over a year of that living at Graber's and building up my country enterprises to where they were now making me a very comfortable return. In order to make further progress I needed to move my base of operations into the city. I had accumulated plenty of silver and some gold, but getting properly established in the city would take a lot of gold - too much for me to make in less than a few more years from my country enterprises alone, assuming I were allowed to continue them uninterrupted without political backing of the sort that required both money and access to the court.

I had a few quiet talks with Rendar about opportunities to get rich relatively quickly in the city given a modest stake of capital. He promised to look into them on my behalf.

One day not too far away from a spring tide (when Streya, Malo, Mina and Mirath were all lined up for fair and tides ran high) Graber and I were out fishing the rising tide. I doubt that any of my colleagues from the physics department would recognize the clean-shaven, long-haired barbarian I'd become. We'd sailed quite deep into the arms of the bay, for the fish were running frantic in enormous schools over the flooding reefs and we were filling the net on every throw, to where it was all we could do together to pull it in.

Tara had taken to accompanying Sally, Arto and Lissa on their goatherding expeditions, which I encouraged out of fear for their safety. Between Tara and Sally and razor sharp steel arrowheads driven by a pair of strong bows, they could take out anything less than a company of soldiers, and I'd even give them odds against a single crena with Sally and Tara both there to help in the fight. Tara was fast enough to literally run up the back of a crena and rip open its throat before it knew she was there, and coordinated enough to dodge snapping jaws and grasping arms while doing it. She had changed more than a bit over the course of the year and a half I had had her, as I'll describe in due time.

We were looking to pull in the last load of the day and head for home. We had a number of harpoons in the boat made with brand new, shiny, buffed, long-shafted steel heads, greased against the salt with goat tallow and fish oil. We had hoped to trade them to the mer-porpoises for a week's worth of fish, delivered (we obviously didn't need more fish at the moment, but the merfolk could fish in any weather or tide or when Graber wanted a bit of a day off). However, the merfolk were nowhere to be found, which was slightly odd considering the madly churning schools of dinner we were sailing through.

Just as Graber leaned over the edge of the boat to get a better grip on the edge of the heavy net, the boat heaved under our feet in the calm sea and the net was suddenly very light. I fell backwards to the bottom. Already a bit overbalanced, Graber lost his footing and was thrown by the surging deck into the sea. I staggered up in a bit of a daze, looked around, and tried to think what a submarine was doing out here in the bay. The conning tower stood next to the boat on the other side.

Then I realized that the ``conning tower'' was a fin. The second fin, the tail fin that identified this as a shark, was only fifty feet away. Which made this shark eighty feet long, give or take a foot or ten. A little larger than a king size eighteen wheeler on the highway.

Somehow, I didn't panic. Yet. I tried to reach Graber with a long pole, but the current was pulling him the wrong way, away from the boat. The sail was down and the sea anchor didn't seem to be there anymore, so I went to the oars and started to pull after him, a slow process with so heavy a boat. Graber saw the fins and knew what they meant and started to swim back to the boat against the current.

The shark, still meditatively chewing on a net full of fish (about one mouthful, for it) passed me like I was standing still. I had to pull in my oar to avoid having it broken off. To anyone who thinks that I should have simply thrown a harpoon into it and triumphantly towed it home, do me a favor. Get a sixteen foot tape measure. In fact, get six of them. Put five of them end to end. That's how long this sucker was. Put the last one sideways, open to about twelve feet, across one end. Think of it as mouth. If you've got a few foot-rulers handy, you can even make teeth.

You want me to deliberately stick that?

No way, José.

I think it was a great white (or rather its prehistoric version, a megalodon - I don't think great whites ever got that big). Definitely not a whale shark or any other plankton eater. God only knows what it ate5.1. Maybe full grown whales, an occasional giant squid or plesiosaur, and perhaps, if I didn't get there in time, an appetizer called Graber who could pass down its gullet unchewed like Jonah into the body of the whale.

Don't get me wrong. It was four times the length and twice the width of the twenty foot boat I was in. The boat would fit lengthwise down that gullet. If I hadn't needed Graber to help me pull, I would have been heading shoreward at a healthy clip, instead of following the wind and current over rocks and reefs that I didn't know like the back of my hand, but Graber did. As soon as I collected him I had real plans for setting some world records in crew.

A hundred yards out, it turned and circled lazily back towards Graber, which was a real shame, since I was almost there. I could see its enormous, ugly face, a hundred, sixty, forty feet away. And I was only ten feet from him myself. In another twenty seconds I would have him out of the water. Unfortunately, it looked like in ten seconds Graber would be contemplating the belly of the beast - from the inside - or I'd literally be putting my hand in its mouth to try to pull him in. Probably arm, upper torso, and all. I proceeded to panic, which (as usual) turned off my conscious mind.

Then my sneaky, self-destructive subconscious took over, and I did a stupid thing. I mean it. I am a coward, deep down inside, and even the allosaurus was a picnic in my own mind compared to this. You see, I kind of like reptiles, snakes and such. Even a ten ton lizard who took a wrong turn back in the Jurassic can be a bundle of laughs. But I have a genuine phobia about sharks, and have had it ever since I read the opening chapter of ``Jaws'' in a drugstore some years ago.

So to this day, I do not really understand why I picked up one of those damn harpoons and threw it twenty feet into its snout even as it started to open its mouth and roll sideways. It was probably an obscure form of panic reaction, to keep it from reaching me. The harpoon was damn sharp and lanced in right next to one of those funny little holes on the side of its sofa-sized nose, holes that on this shark were big enough to put a fist into.

The water behind Graber exploded into a boiling cauldron of foam and fins as the shark simply vanished. Graber damn near vanished, too. He was sucked back about twenty feet by the whirlpool, but then began to swim again like mad towards the boat. I moved to the end of the boat to help him in over the gunwale.

Suddenly the water seemed very far away. I looked behind me and ... now I swear that this is true, and not just cribbed from Moby Dick. The entire boat was neatly clenched in the biggest pair of jaws that I have ever seen. One could make a handsaw out of each separate serrated tooth. The jaws were attached to a head the size of a one-car garage. The head was attached to an endless length of body that was surging up out of the sea. I felt like Ahab on an elevator. Or was it Starbuck.

Several surreal images, like flash-frozen photos, are still with me. The dead fish eyes, watching me. The harpoon stuck like a toothpick out of the snout. The teeth. The teeth. Oh, God, the teeth.

The teeth that crushed the boat very much like a crisp taco shell, with me the filling squirting out before they closed, snapping together a few inches from my heels as the head slowly lowered us to the waves again.

There I was, floating next to a four foot piece of the stern where I had stood a moment before. Pieces of boat were strewn about. Not too many. I remember an insane thought about chickens and pebbles. Does a shark even have a craw? Could it digest seawater-soaked wood? A couple of the harpoons were floating nearby so I grabbed them for support. I saw Graber quietly making for a piece of the mast flung fifty feet or so away. The churning foam settled, and the water grew absolutely quiet.

I held perfectly still, remembering that ultra-sensitive lateral line. Nobody home, Jack. You got me in the last bite, mixed in with all those fish from the hold (the leftovers from which were still floating all around and hopefully covering my scent).

It surfaced, gently, like a submarine, rising with its head just in front of me, almost close enough to touch as it nosed into the piece of the stern, perhaps checking to see it I was there or if it was edible. Who knows what a stupid, oversized fish thinks?

Who knows what I think when I am insane with fear? I did my second stupid thing. A red mist had drifted across my eyes when I sat there, twenty feet above the water, and looked death right in its basketball-sized eye. So I didn't do this. The other me, the dangerous one (the stupid one, in this case) did it. I (he) drove one of the harpoons into that damned, dead, eye.

When I say ``drove'' I may have exaggerated, indulged in a bit of poetic license. Have you ever tried throwing something while floating in the water supported in part by the thing one is throwing? More accurately, I heaved myself up on the harpoon on my left side and sort of slung the harpoon that was in my right hand at the eye. Since the range was about eight feet, I was lucky to actually nick it as the harpoon went in surprisingly deep.

This time it surged forward and up on its way down. When the water stopped boiling around me the second time and I floated the five feet or so back to the surface, the stern of the boat was gone, but I still had the last harpoon. Graber was slowly drifting further away. For a long moment nothing happened.

Then Graber, who had been very quiet, began kicking and thrashing. I looked behind me and saw the fins angled off, twenty feet away. Graber was acting crazy. Then I understood. He was trying to attract its attention, hoping to get eaten in my place (I guess) and hoping that it would leave after that.

Screw that. You can't stop someone from going crazy in times of great stress and actually trying to get eaten by a god-damned shark the size of Rhode Island, but you can try to prevent it. The shark turned towards Graber and its body swung like a blimp up beneath me. I caught its backfin with one arm as it swept slowly by and was lifted up clear out of the water. I suddenly found myself sitting on the broad back of the shark, whose rough skin gave surprisingly good footing.

So I stood up with the last harpoon, and literally jumped into the air to drive it with all my weight deep, deep into the broad back just in front of the fin, pushing the wooden shaft in after the head and twisting it like a scythe with my weight as the shark surged in response. I vaguely remembered reading or hearing someone say that sharks are unusually ticklish there. Maybe they are.

The last thing I remember was flying through the air for an impossibly long time, with a huge greyish white body twisting above and beside me. The water was very hard, then very deep and cold. My consciousness fled.

Hands pulled at me, tugged at me, pushed me through the endless waves. I remember getting a breath in now and then, but too many of them were half water, and I was slowly drowning and too tired to even cough to clear my lungs. The light and sound came from the distant end of a tunnel and was slowly fading, getting farther and farther away as my mind started to shut down.

Finally a hand, somehow a familiar hand, not like the cold clawed hands that wouldn't let me sink, wouldn't let me sleep, pulled me by the hair through a rush of surf and up, up to where wet sand brushed against my heels. The same hands pulled me by the arms out of the water and flipped me onto my face in the sand, pushed the water out of my paralyzed lungs, thumped my back, forced some air back where the water had been. It's all the same to me, I wanted to say. I've drowned. Don't bother.

Then I felt very sick and vomited a little and choked on water that heaved out of my lungs and heaved again and gasped for air, and coughed for ten minutes or so the way you do when you swallow a bucketful of salt water the wrong way and finally, slowly, I was alive, breathing painfully, but alive. I lay perfectly still for a few minutes, savoring the blue sky, the warm sun, the infinitely precious air pulling into my tortured lungs. Bullshit. What I really savored was the feeling of sandy old Mirath (the solid part) beneath my prone form. Wild sea horses couldn't have dragged me into a boat on that damn ocean again.

After a bit I became aware of Graber next to me. He held out a bottle of my (really my eleventh doppelganger's) whiskey. We had washed into shore just below my supposedly secret clifftop stash. I didn't ask him either how he knew about it or how he climbed the two hundred foot cliff to get it. I just took a long, long pull from it, coughed ecstatically like a three-pack-a-day Camel unfiltered smoker on his first toke of the morning and handed it to him. He did the same, including the coughing part. There is a difference between whiskey and ale...

The rapidly rising tide was by then lapping at my heels, so we hauled ourselves to our feet and trudged up the steeply sloping shore to the high water mark to collapse again. I looked at my watch. (I wore one beneath a camouflaging lizard-skin wrist gauntlet that had somehow gotten torn away, just to mark off hours since it was never in sync with the day. In fact, I recall that it reported that it was 11:30 p.m. back on some forgotten Earth.) Somehow two hours had passed since whatever happened out there had happened. Somehow I was alive. Neither thing made sense, but with the whiskey lighting up a bit of a glow inside of me, I no longer cared.

I looked out to sea. Suddenly, incredibly, the shark seemed to surface a hundred yards offshore. But its fin listed off to the side, and flopped over. It rolled belly up, and I could see that its sides streamed with blood in a dozen places. Then I saw the mer-orcas, carrying their wrought iron harpoons (as well as a few of the steel-head harpoons we had been taking them in the boat), lashing into it again and again.

``The sea people helped pull us in. Then they went back for it, where it swam in circles, dying.'' said Graber. ``They say you are one of them, a chieftain, to have killed a great one, for your blow was a mortal one, but the great sharedhi take a long while to die. They say they will feast on its flesh tonight in your honor, and bring us fish from the bay for a maloon. The bay has been unsafe for a minaan when this one followed the spring tide schools into the bay, and they were hungry and exposed at sea.''

``Thank them for pulling us in,'' I managed to rasp out. My voice sounded like I felt. Most of my clothes had been ripped off, and my whole exposed body was one big bruise, with discolored patches appearing on my legs, and arms, and chest. The sandpaper skin of the shark had peeled off a middling swath of skin along with my clothes on my butt, of all places, which stung like the devil on the sand. Still, I was lucky that my cojones were intact. A slightly different angle of impact. . .

No bones were broken, so eventually I limped back to the house with Graber, taking turns at the bottle to gradually numb the pain. By the time we got there I hardly hurt at all. Lissa (apparently back from goat-tending) took one look at us and screamed. Tara tried to climb onto me - gently, she'd long since learned to control her claws - and then sniffed at me solicitously where I lay on the floor after her weight knocked me right over.

Then both of them saw that we were really all right and well on our way to drunk to boot, and just fussed. Lissa boiled up water in a brand-new cast-iron pot on the brand-new brick stove I had built into the cottage (which was rapidly becoming more of a real house than a hut with the improvements I kept installing). Graber and I each had a genuine hot bath in an indoor-outdoor tub made out of crude sand-glazed ceramic tiles cemented together on a brick base, also a product of my brick-and-mortar works. When I was done bathing and was lying my stomach on the kitchen table with Lissa clucking over my injuries and trying to dress them with an herb-based healing cream, Graber disappeared with a huge saw-knife in hand that he used to cut up the biggest bony fishes. Tara flowed silently along after him.

I rested on my belly while this was going on, and was just beginning to worry about Lissa, who was getting that look in her eye as she and her goo-covered fingers worked over sensitive spots on my naked torso when Graber reappeared all excited and wet and covered in gore, preventing me from having to take any sort of evasive action. While he bathed again I put on a pair of real cotton boxer shorts (from Earth no less) as a bandage of sorts and then duded myself up in my best medieval tavern outfit, kilt and all, and went outside.

I couldn't believe the sight that met my eyes. I don't know how he did it so quickly (probably with the enthusiastic help of mer-folk), but he had the jaws of that monster, gobbets of flesh covered with grey sandpaper skin still hanging from them, balanced on his cart (which looked small by comparison) and wedged there with bound chunks of wood. Tara was sitting inside them and gnawing on still-attached scraps. She looked replete and her paws and claws were still matted with blood where she'd obviously ``helped'' with the removal of the jaws. I sat down on a nearby stump and meditated on the fragility of life - specifically my own - until Graber (dressed) came out accompanied by Lissa, climbed up into the cart, and patted the seat next to him.

``Hop on, you two. It's off to The Grinning Shark! Ho! It's a holiday! Wait till those bastards see this! Any fool, to be honest, can kill a crena. But only a hero, only one chosen by the very gods themselves, can kill a great sharedha of the sea. It is,'' he said, suddenly moving from ebullient to serious, ``one of the lesser gods itself.''

At first the jaws wouldn't fit through the regular door, so they brought them in through a pair of doors that appeared behind the painting of naked people doing interesting things behind the bar and revealed that Brand's tavern began its existence as Brand's barn. They were destined to replace the set of jaws above the bar that gave the place its name. They were more than twice the size.

I will not detail the rest of the evening's festivities. I was already somewhat lit from the scotch when I got there and was bathed in ale from the minute a mug was slapped into my hands as I first arrived. So to be perfectly frank, I don't remember a hell of a lot of what went on well enough to detail them. I do remember being hoisted onto a bizarre throne that they rigged up on a pair of plank tables with a coarsely woven blanket draped over a hastily assembled frame of saplings so that I seemed to sit inside the gaping jaws. They even painted the blanket it with eyes.

My hand was rarely empty that night, yet I never filled it or paid for a drop. A wench was always at my side, or in my lap, and a local musician or two began playing and people danced and it got rowdy, and a virtual orgy began over in the dark wing of the tavern and after it had been going some hours even people from Sind-a-Lay started showing up on horseback as people spread the word, and we got down.

One of my last semi-coherent memories is of sitting in the throne, with a sweet young thing's hand in my lap trying to raise the dead (after what I'd had to drink it was damn well dead, which probably saved me from a wide variety of interesting mutations of the clap), my head starting that long, slow, whirl that takes you either to bed or to puke your guts out or some combination of both, when Rendar walked through the tavern door. With him was a broad, squat, dark man. Rendar was known and liked at Brand's place, but people shrank away from the two of them, and even Brand showed some deference to the dark one.

They moved over to pay their respects, as people had all evening. I was well past the point of coherence.

``R'nd'r, old bud, bud, buddy. Whaas Happn'n, man? Have a beer. Damn, beer, an'way. Allas warm. Never col'. Whoozer fren'?''

Of course this was all in English, so Rendar must have thought I was loony tunes. He laughed. He said, and part of me still understood, though my Ushtian had largely faded, ``Sam, this is my friend, Brin. We heard of your valor and wished to see it for ourselves. I see that you are indisposed, but perhaps we will take rooms for the night and see you in the morning. Brin wishes to make you a business proposition.''

He paused, and for the first time really saw that the arch over my head was the jaws themselves, for by now they were so festooned with the blanket and bright cloths and ribbons and hats for the party that they were not immediately recognizable. ``Holy T'sala,'' he said quietly. Brin's eyes widened only a little as he took it in. His expression did not change. It reminded me a great deal of the shark's. The only real flicker of interest occurred when they swept over Tara, who was sleeping at my feet.

Rendar recovered himself, and looked at me with something akin to pity. The girl, pouting, had given up with her hand (thankfully) and was trying her tongue in my ear, which did little for me at the time besides give me a wet ear. I started to feel a bit sick. Lissa was talking to Arto on the far side of the room, gesturing angrily at me from time to time. Arto looked unhappy. The room was a roar. My head was spinning, spinning.

``Good night, my friend,'' he said.

``G'ni ...'' I distinctly remember saying as the floor floated up toward my face. Hands grabbed me, keeping me from braining myself (or worse, impaling myself on the razor-sharp teeth at my feet), and Tara let out a fading yowl.

After that I remember nothing.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29