My stay in the village went surprisingly well. The smith was nice enough to take in my machine, he maybe couldn’t repair it himself, but if someone had the tools necessary, it’d be him. It was however also noticeable that a lot of the niceness from the villagers didn’t come from the bottom of their heart, but rather always with an unspoken wish for something to happen in return. I tried to explain how our lives went up there, that I had been working in a factory and that a lot of people went jobless thanks to the industrialization, but all they heard was that we made ourselves an easy life. I wanted to leave as soon as possible, and the flying machine was my only ticket back home.
Thankfully, the smith was a good man. His name was Ralph. He inspected the wrecked legs of the machine and started working on new legs. I realized only now what the villagers meant by lazy. I had forged my fair share of custom tools in the factory, from the smallest springs to the biggest wrench, but I always had access to the never-ending power of steam. Ralph had his right arm. Well, he also had his left arm, a hammer and an anvil, but all in all, if he wanted a piece of metal to be flat, he couldn’t just plop it into a steam hammer and wait for a couple seconds or minutes, he had to work it flat, by hand, and re-heat it often.
Because of this, I still was in the village, which was called Aucrary, a week later. Ralph had apprentices and journeymen himself, so my help wasn’t needed all too often, and in the evening, after doing some good deeds for other people, I mostly was trying to figure out how the flying machine actually worked. Ralph’s daughter, Lily, found this machine just as interesting as me, and luckily for me, who was able to get a crude drawing down every now and again, she was able to make some brilliant drawings of the things we inspected. Without her drawings, I would never have dared to disassemble the engine.
Ralph checked in every now and again, glad that we were making progress and possibly even more glad that his daughter was creating a copy of the machine.
One last problem remained though. Power. We quickly identified the location of the fuel tank, as there are only ever are two different stinking and nasty looking liquids that you’d take with you voluntarily. One is oil, to keep everything operating smoothly. One is fuel, and the liquid coal this machine was using made me glad that our coal would only stink after it was burned. We experimented a bit with it, and it turned out, it really liked to burn. Like, really liked it. To the point where you could pour it over a candle, and it would not only catch fire, but also burn so quickly that the fire was travelling up the stream, leaving you with a cup in your hand that a second ago was just stinking water, and now was a raging inferno. Naturally, you’d try to get rid of this cup as fast as you could, and so I did. I dropped the cup and jumped back, Lily did likewise, as did Ralph’s chickens. The burning stream made its way towards a nearby puddle, and instead of drowning out, it floated on top of the water.
If before the villagers had thought of me as some sort of semi-useless person helping them for semi-bothersome tasks, they now had seen me throwing around liquid fire.
— He’s the saviour, said one of them.
— No, I’m not! I just wanted to try some experiments with this liquid coal, I replied
— He can make coal to a liquid, said another.
— Can you turn lead to gold?, a third.
— Please, the tax collectors are bound to come any day now! Please give turn just one bit of gold so everyone of us will survive the winter.
— This spoon! Turn it into silver!
On and on the discussion went. The more I tried to explain that I wasn’t a god, the more angry the villagers became.
— He’s not a god! He’s a demon!, someone finally shouted. This was a sound explanation why I wouldn’t help them.
— I’m neither god nor demon! I’m just a regular human, I can’t help you more than you can help yourselves!
— To prove you’re not a demon, you’ll need to pass the trial of cleansing!
— The what now?
— You’ll have to dive across the lake without surfacing once, the man explained, — there hasn’t been anyone who ever passed it.
— It’s not a trial then, it’s just a death sentence!
— If you’re a demon, yes, but not if you’re a man!
— So why haven’t you completed it?
— I’m not a demon! I don’t need to do the trial!
— But I’m no demon either!
With demons, it’s always best to not take any risk. So the villagers ended up sending the one who was refusing to do the trial to the trial as well, though now careful to not argue about it anymore so they wouldn’t have to do it themselves. It now just was a fact that the two of us had to do the trial.
A few hours later, we arrived at the lake. It looked way bigger down here than it had looked from above, and it most definitely was impossible to swim across it in one go. Lily had hurried me to arrive way before the others and now was walking towards the shore.
— See these?, she asked
— It’s reed, isn’t it?
— We call them thatch. Look what you can do with them.
Lily cut one off, put one end into the water, the other into her mouth, aimed towards me, and squirted the contents at me.
Lily giggled. — I find it most fun to use this way, but they also work the other way. Letting you breathe under water.
— Man, that’s cheating this competition, is it not?
— It says get across without surfacing, and you’re not surfacing. Sounds fair game to me.
— If you say so.
Horses could be heard.
— I’ll make my way to the other side and wait for you there.
— Alright, bye then!
Shortly afterwards, I was waist-deep in the water, my opponent to my side. The smith, who also acted as head of the village, read out our charges and the rules of the trial. And indeed, not once did the word “straw” or “breathing device” fall.
And off we went. I lost my opponent quickly in the murky water and decided to turn right to basically walk underwater and keep near the shore as I wasn’t a good swimmer. The straw was working wonders, it certainly was easier to breathe through it than it sometimes was in the factory. I was roughly halfway over, judging by the sun’s position, when the water suddenly became cold and the shore made a turn. Of course, the river. I decided to swim on my back, careful to not actually surface, directly towards where I thought the goal to be.
Then, suddenly, something yanked away my straw. Was it a fish? Was it a bird? Was it my opponent? I didn’t know, but I did know that I now actually had to manage my breath. While I wasn’t a good swimmer, I had been good at sinking like a rock and harvesting mussels. As little kid, that is. Now, I could barely remember the techniques I used back then, so I just tried to stay calm and hope for the best.
The longer the dive went on, the faster my movements became. The goal couldn’t be this far away anymore! My lung was burning, my arms and legs were cramping up, until finally, I became relaxed again. So relaxed that I took a deep breath which filled my lungs with water. I looked at the sun, why wasn’t it over yet? The sun, instead of answering, disappeared and a shadow fell on me, grabbed me, and pulled me out.
When I woke up, I was laying on a rocky beach. The villagers surrounded me, but weren’t looking at me. Instead, they were discussing something.
— I say, let ’em drown in a puddle if they are too weak!
— No! He clearly made it over, it started waist-deep and ended waist-deep. Pulling him out was within the rules.
— The rules, the rules! Who came up with these rules anyway?
— I don’t know. It’s an ancient tradition that…
— It’s bollocks, that’s what it is. Demons! It’s impossible for a human to hold their breath for this long, it must be a demon who makes it!
— And a half demon who almost makes it!
— He’s no half-demon, he’s got no tail!
— Maybe he is an evil god?
— Do we have a trial for evil gods?
— How would we know he’s an evil god then?
— Let him dive across the lake and back!
— Yes! No god would be able to do that!
— No human would be able to do it either, it’s a shit trial, I finally interjected.
— Oh, you’re awake, Ralph said calmly and the discussion died. — We’re unsure what to do about you. You did master the trial at least halfway, so we won’t hang you. But you also didn’t master it fully, so you can’t stay either.
— So what do you think should happen to me?
— I think…, Ralph waited for an uncomfortably long time. — I think you should be banished.
A brief silence. Followed by unison agreeing mumbling. It wasn’t as fun as slaying a demon, but at least the problem was gone.
— Can I go back and take my machine with me?, I asked.
— No, you’re banished. You mustn’t enter Aucrary.
And just like that, all my hopes and dreams had died.