Skruff had never been so far from his home. Not that he minded, he welcomed adventures and cherished almost all new experiences. Such was the way of the nissa people, which also, unfortunately, had a lot to do with their populations dwindling numbers. The nissa were fearless; foolhardy by the standards of most other races. Also, they were wanderers. It was not uncommon for a nissa to just wander off once the wanderlust hit him, without so much as a ‘by your leave’ or any other word to friends or family, never to be seen by them again.
But this was different. Skruff was on a mission, and besides, he was attached to Garr, which made his return, at least at some point, barring death, inevitable. Huldred had sent him to find the wizard, Arnaald Hardrada. Or at least to find out as much as he could, concerning the mages whereabouts or what had befallen him. Nissas were great clue finders. They had a way of sneaking almost anywhere undetected and had heightened senses such as hearing, sight and smell, not to mention a keen extra sensory awareness.
Skruff had been on his errand for almost six weeks now and had learned much. He had been the guest of Igar’s infantry, albeit unbeknownst to the trulls, for almost a week. He was happily amazed at how loose the trull’s tongues were especially when they were in their cups, which was any time there was grog enough to keep those cups filled. Grog was something Igar kept well stocked for it kept his officers occupied when not marching or fighting. It also kept them from killing each other, for the most part. But trulls loved to spin a good yarn when they tippled. It took Skruff a while to discern between the fish tales and the truths, but that eventually became obvious to him.
One night while eavesdropping on a tale being woven by a particularly sodden Bob Knocknob, he learned a great deal indeed.
“Aye, lads. Ol’ Lord Doden’s as powerful a wizard as they come,” Bob drawled to a small group of equally sodden and rapt underlings. “We all try t’ stay outta his notice, but it’s on ‘is side I’d rather be than not, I can tell ya.” At this he took a long pull off his tankard, wiped his mouth on his sleeve and spat into the campfire. “He taught that snotty Arnaald Hardrada a quick thing or two, I can tell ya that much. Caught ‘im ridin’ hell-bent fer leather south o’ Hedsallheim awhile back. Hell of a fight, I gotta say, but ol’ Doden had some sort o’ talisman that gave ‘im the upper hand and he froze that ol’ mage solid as a rock. Couldn’t kill ‘im though ‘n’ that part I don’t rightly understand.” He seemed at this point to lapse into a moment of thoughtfulness from which he soon roused himself saying, “Mind me now, lads, and keep yer council ‘bout what I’m ‘bout to tell ya ‘cause it’s top secret.” At this he leered covertly from side to side and motioned his small audience in close. “The Master’s got that ol’ fart imprisoned in the caverns ‘neath Bolle in the Voldsom Mountains on account of the area is made up of some special kind o’ rocks called… uh… maggots or some such. Anyway them rocks keeps the wizard from bein’ able to use his powers. How’s that fer smart?” This last drew a murmur of agreement from the enthralled group, much to Bob’s satisfaction.
Skruff had been resting nearby amongst a stack of supply crates munching on a pilfered supper of dried apples and cheese. “Aha! Skruff get an earful and bellyful at same time,” he thought. With that he whipped his apple-core straight from his hiding place to strike the side of Bob’s fat head.
Bob looked at the trull to his right, and outraged, he clubbed the poor fellow mercilessly.
Long before the clubbed fellow regained consciousness, Skruff was again on the trail of the missing wizard. After having stolen a look at the maps in Igar’s tent (nissas love maps), he found himself once more traveling north.
For many leagues the journey north through the Voldsom Mountains, while arduous in some areas, was largely uneventful. Then something that Skruff had barely noticed at first began to capture his attention. Something on the periphery of his vision kept popping in and out of sight. This made Skruff very wary for he got the uncomfortable feeling that he was being stalked. He decided to find himself a spot of defensible high ground, settle in and see what transpired.
For many long moments Skruff detected nothing more disconcerting than the occasional swoop of hunting birds or the haunting moan of the winds at such altitudes. And then, there it was again; nothing more than a colorful blur on the edge of vision but plainly something real and not imagined. First it appeared to the left, then to the right, a little forward, a little to the rear.
Skruff felt his little heart quicken its’ pace and realized that he was thoroughly enrapt by this latest turn of events. This was something he had never experienced before. He started to discern an electrical crackling sound accompanying the colorful blurs sounding at one moment distant, the next, near.
Suddenly, on the rocky escarpment directly in front of him, so close he could feel a prickly tingle all over his body, a being appeared in a whirlwind of sparks and sputters. When the commotion died away, there stood the most odd looking individual Skruff had ever seen. He, if a he it truly was, was about six feet tall and covered head to foot in a multicolored suit which was loose in some areas and snug-fitting in others and covered with pockets. He also carried a similarly colorful rucksack, valise and parasol. Beneath a tattered pith helmet was a bright red shock of frizzy red hair. Strapped onto his chest was the oddest thing of all; a box with dials and windows and a little whirly thing on top that went round and round. He stood on the rocky ledge, one hand on his hip surveying the landscape apparently oblivious to Skruff’s’ presence.
It is an unusual thing indeed for a nissa to become completely flummoxed, but Skruff was very close. But more than that, he was amazed and intensely interested, so much so that any natural flight instinct was negated and he found himself saying, “Hoo boy! What you, anyhow?”
The strange fellow was so startled he nearly went over the edge, arms windmilling to keep his balance. When he finally regained his composure, he turned, spied Skruff and uttered “Ogg too bleh gnix ostletpopnul gord Smuntley Kwerm. Hoot oppen floy?”
Skruff had no idea what the stranger was trying to say to him. The man held out his hand in a halting gesture and fiddled with the dials on his chest-box. When he was apparently satisfied he indicated to Skruff that he wanted him to continue to speak by pointing to his mouth and issuing a “come-along” gesture with his hand.
“Oh, you want me talk?”, responded Skruff. “Okay, here goes. My name Skruff. Very important nissaman. Skruff on a very important secret mission. So, who you, anyway? You very different odd person. Nice suit.”
“Ah, there. That’s much better… capital actually. Hrumph,” said the stranger clearing his throat. He indicated the strange box, “Translation device, you see. Hmm, yes well, as I was saying, my name is Smuntley Kwerm, Time/Dimension Traveler. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
In typical courteous nissa fashion Skruff strode unperturbedly forward, hand extended in greeting. “What’s time/denture traveler?”
“Why, my good fellow,” Smuntley began to explain as a second thought hit him. “You do know what time is, yes?”
“Time goes by,” responded Skruff.
“Hmm, yes, quite so,” Smuntley returned. He removed his thick spectacles and wiped them with a handkerchief. “Rudimentary but succinct. Anyway, my good sir, I have mastered the subtleties of traversing the dimensional boundaries of time. ‘Twas a basic concept really once one trains ones-self to ignore the dictates that it is an impossibility physiologically speaking… and…” He could see he was losing his audience. “Ahem. Simply put, my friend, I can go from today to tomorrow without enduring night.”
Skruff scratched his head and said, “Magic.”
Seeing that any further education at this point was futile and a precious waste of time, Smuntley decided to try the colloquial approach. “So, my good fellow, where are you from?”
“Wassamatter?” asked Skruff, “time travel make your mind crazy? I tell you I’m going in secret. Can’t tell you where I live, nutsy. Anyway, I don’t live there now.”
Seeing the problem, Smuntley offered, “But of course. How unobservant of me. Umm… perhaps I might ask… are you typical of this world’s… umm. . .times… inhabitants?”
Skruff smiled. “Of inhabitants, no. Of nissa race… maybe.”
“Well,’ said Smuntley. “Truth be told, I’m on a bit of a, shall we say, sabbatical, myself. Actually, I’m seeking a place… or time… to retire, as it where. Someplace… time… to hide from the strictures of my indigenous homeland and time. Someplace quiet and patently unexciting. In short, I’m looking for Nirvana.”
“Okay, hope you find it. You seem nice,” said Skruff. “Skruff in big hurry. No got time in pocket like Smuntley. Gotta go now. Bye!” Skruff turned unceremoniously and plodded on down the hill but before he had gone a dozen steps Smuntley’s voice brought him up short.
“Umm, I say, would you mind terribly if I tagged along? As I’ve mentioned, I’m quite a newcomer and I shouldn’t mind the company.”
Skruff turned and sighed, “Suit yourself. Hey, got any food?”
Smuntley searched in his pack and was happy to report that he did, in fact, have quite a store of canned items, dried fruits and pemmican.
Skruff smiled and said, “Then time-man most welcome. But hurry. Trying to find cave before dark. Gonna need shelter. Mountains get very cold at night and there’s spooky things, too. Best to have a cave or such to sleep in.”
‘Well, by all means, noble sir,” responded the time traveler, “lead on.”
And so the unlikely partnership moved off down the barely discernible trail in search of shelter for the night.
Within the hour Skruff’s impeccable talent for searching out what he liked to call “hidey holes” bore fruit and the odd pair now found themselves resting comfortably beside a small fire in what was more of a fissure than a cave, but it was cozy enough to keep out the night.
Over a supper of canned salmon, nuts and raisins, Skruff and Smuntley shared histories. Smuntley found that Skruff’s reckoning of time was somewhat abstract, which made it frustrating in the extreme for one who had made that subject his life’s calling. However, by asking questions about the turnings of the seasons and so forth he was able to ascertain a basic idea of Skruff’s considerable age.
“By Jove, old boy! Why, that would put your age in terms of centuries. Fascinating, why it’s incredible really.” At this he took out a notepad and began to scribble notes.
Skruff had shown only cursory interest in the exchange up to this point, preferring instead to savor the taste of the raisins, a new experience for him, grapes not being common to his part of the world. But when Smuntley began to write, the pencil drew his undivided attention.
“Whoa, what that?” he asked, pointing at the pencil.
His outburst was so sudden and excited that Smuntley thought he was pointing at something behind him. He rose abruptly spinning as he did. He began to ask “Where?” but before the word left his lips he smashed his head into a five-foot ceiling that would not accommodate his six-foot height. The blow dropped him even faster than he had risen. He doffed his trusty pith helmet for the first time since they had met saying, “Oww, blimey! Good thing I remembered my trust pithy.” He rubbed his head saying, “So sorry, chap. Umm… you were saying…”
“That. What that?” he asked, pointing to the pencil that was now lying in the dirt at Smuntley’s feet.
“Oh, this”, said Smuntley. “Why, it’s a pencil. Have you never seen one? Well, no. I suppose you haven’t, given your historical period. One moment.” He reached into his pack and retrieved another pencil saying, “I’ve several. Would you care for one?”
Skruff’s attention was now glued to the proffered item as he reached to accept it. “For Skruff? Oh, thank you.” He immediately smelled and then tasted it.
Smuntley smiled and said, “No, no, my dear boy. Observe.” He hastily scribbled a stick man on the pad and turned it for Skruff to inspect.
Skruff was beside himself with delight. “Oh, for make pictures. Good as magic. Skruff will treasure such a gift. But what can Skruff give in return?”
With a wave of his hand Smuntley replied, “Not necessary, my good fellow, for I am completely self-contained. I travel light and have everything I’ll likely need to survive in any number of given environments, really. No, trust me when I say that your friendly companionship is far more than fair compensation for the gift of a pencil. I can’t tell you how often I’d have given much more valuable things for the sound of another’s voice or a friendly smile. Travel of any kind, especially time travel, while incredibly exciting at times, can also be a very lonely endeavor.”
Skruff tried to imagine items more valuable than the gift he had just received. Finally in mild awe he said, “Wow, you must be rich.”
By this time Smuntley had packed a pipe and was just lighting it when he said, “Yes, sir. I suppose I must admit, I am at that.” He puffed and blew smoke rings that collected and fragmented on the too-low ceiling of the cave.
Nissas were nothing if not careful, but they also were given to spells of impetuosity and when their mind was made up that they liked someone, their trust was absolute; another trait that tended to contribute to their dwindling numbers as a race.
“Skruff going to rescue a mighty wizard,” he blurted out.
“Beg pardon?” Smuntley was roused from his reverie by the sudden outburst.
“A wizard. A most powerful and magical one. He been caught and put in prison. Skruff gonna get him out.” As he said this he stood with his thumbs in the suspenders of his little alpine get-up, chest swollen with pride.
Smuntley had his doubts. He had been in many time periods and found the subject of wizards to be largely attributable to myth or charlatanism. But then his experience with “the little people” was much the same and yet here, undeniably, was one of that ilk spinning tales of wizards. So out of courtesy and no small curiosity he said, “Continue please.”
“That’s all. Skruff gonna save Arnaald Hardrada, paramount wizard.” At that he plunked himself back down and turned his attention back to the pencil.
“Well, excuse me if I seem a bit obtuse,” Smuntley continued, “but if this wizard of yours is so ‘paramount’ what is he doing locked up in a prison?”
“Bad wizard got the jump on him.”
“I see,” said the time-traveler. “Well why doesn’t he use his magic to facilitate his release? And if he can’t escape with his magic, how will you get him out?”
“Maggots and don’t know.” By now Skruff’s almost undivided attention was directed at using the pencil to retrieve the last scraps of salmon at the bottom of the can.
Smuntley scratched at his bushy red mutton-chop sideburns. “I’m sorry. You’ve completely lost me.”
Skruff tossed the can into the fire, licked the pencil clean and answered, “Maggots. Maggots keep wizard in prison. And Skruff have no idea how to get him out.”
“Maggots?” Smuntley shuddered. “That certainly is disgusting. Tell me, if you don’t know how to get him out, why are you going… where is it you’re going anyway?”
“Bolle”, said Skruff. “Just over next ridge and Skruff going ‘cause nobody else here to go. Wanna help? It’ll be fun.”
“Your idea of ‘fun’ is unique, I’ll give you that”, said Smuntley, “but sure. Why not?”
Smuntley wasn’t at all sure he had made the right decision, but this little fellows’ straightforward attack on life was infectious in the extreme. He knew that letting Skruff lead him on this cockamamie adventure could be dangerous at the least, and if this talk of guard maggots carried any truth at all, well, it was certain to be nauseating in the bargain. He tried to remind himself that he had come here to retire from the excitement of life and lead a tepid, mundane but comfortable existence. He had had his share of adventures, to be sure. After all, wasn’t that what time travel was all about? So he convinced himself that this would be his last hoorah, and if things went too badly, he could always make one more jump.
“Thanks for supper and my gift,” said Skruff, stuffing the pencil into his own little rucksack. “Gotta sleep now. Leave early in the morning. G’night.” He plopped down onto the cave floor using his pack for a pillow, crossed his arms and closed his eyes.
Smuntley was a little disappointed. He had hoped for a bit more conversation; certainly more information about their plan of attack on the morrows’ undertaking. “Umm, tell me, my good fellow. Why must we leave so early?”
“‘Cause early is when early come, and that’s when we must leave. So g’night.” At this he rolled away from Smuntley, body language alone indicating that his plans were non-negotiable and the conversation was over. Smuntley rolled out his own bedroll and was soon fast asleep himself.
The first light of dawn saw Skruff smoothing dirt over the remains of the previous night’s fire. He shook Smuntley gently awake and said, “Hey, buddy. Gotta go now. Burnin’ daylight.”
Smuntley peered through one slitted eye at the dim gray light poking through the cave mouth and said, “Burning day-gray is more accurate. Am I to understand you do not intend that we break our fast?”
“No time. Eat on run. Still got lottsa raisins and there’s plenty berries on the way,” said Skruff, shouldering his pack.
“But I’ve a goodly supply of canned goods and… and… Wait! No tea?” Smuntley was nonplussed. This was positively uncivilized.
Skruff, however, would not be deterred. “No tea. No time. Skruff wanna be over ridge before sun get too high. Climbing mountains sweaty work.”
During this exchange Smuntley had been hastily throwing his effects together. “Well, you’ve a point there I’ll reluctantly admit. But, no tea. Phaw! I never!” By the time he had shouldered his own pack the adamant little man was out of the cave and on his way down the trail leaving Smuntley to play catch-up.
The climb was exactly as Skruff had promised; hot, sweaty work. It was cool for certain at their present altitude and with the wind, even more so, but the exertion negated all that. When they finally reached the summit and were able to rest, they felt the cold on sweaty skin. “Now need tea,” said Skruff. “Not much but scrub-wood up here but Skruff think we find enough for fire if we look hard. You go that way, me go this,” and off he went.
Smuntley grinned and shook his head. This little fellow never seemed to waste words. Smuntley turned and went off in the opposite direction. As yet he had not been afforded a complete view of the valley below them, but as he rounded a huge boulder the total breathtaking panorama was suddenly splayed out before him. The time-traveler had seen his share of amazing and unusual landscapes but this brought him up short.
There before him was a colossal bowl-shaped basin some five or six leagues across and thousands of feet to its floor. In the center was a precipitous mound rising at least a few hundred feet. Smuntley new immediately that he stood on the edge of an immense ancient crater and that the central mound was probably the remnant of whatever titan had collided with the earth so many eons ago. A mountain stream a few miles to the west fed a small lake at the lowest point of the crater over which large birds swooped and dove. “By Jove!” exclaimed Smuntley. “Tis beautiful… stunning, actually.” He knew at that moment that he had found the place he would call home for the rest of his days.
Eventually, with some effort, he roused himself from his trance when the cutting wind reminded him of the much-required fire. Actually what wood he was able to find, limbs and trunks of gnarled scrub-oak super dried by sun and wind, was ideal for starting the kind of quick hot fire they needed at present. He had to leave the meager trail and go rummaging about in the underbrush, but there was wood and kindling aplenty. He soon returned with a back-bending armful.
Skruff, by this time was on his knees blowing a fire to life. He looked up to find Smuntley staggering under the weight of his burden. “Hoo boy! You slow-pokey but sure got lotsa wood.” He laughed out loud and clapped his little mitts together. “Now we have good big fire for tea.”
Smuntley dropped the lumber with a clatter, removed his helmet and mopped his brow. “Whew! That should last us for a bit, possibly all night were we to conserve.”
“Oh can’t camp for night yet,” said Skruff, who was now fashioning a crude tripod from which to hang the kettle. “Skruff want to get to valley floor before nightfall. Then camp for night.”
“Oh, yes. Capital idea, my boy. There’s a beautiful little tarn down there, you know,” said Smuntley digging through his valise for the kettle. “Perfect place to camp, actually. Maybe we could do a spot of fishing, or for myself at least, a much welcome bath.”
“Fish maybe but as for bath, Skruff just had one last year.”
Smuntley stalled in the middle of handing over the kettle. “Last year!” he sputtered. “Good lord, man. You can’t be serious. If that were true you would have to stink to the heavens, and truth be told, I could actually swear on several occasions that I’ve detected a most pleasant scent emanating from you. Sort of a floral bouquet.”
Now Skruff smiled with amusement. “Nissas got no body-smell, silly. Skruff’s emotions… that what you smell. No need to bathe often. Dirt no stick to nissas much.”
“Is that right?” said Smuntley, now handing over his tea and canteen. He pulled open the lapel of his odd jumpsuit and took a whiff. “Oosh! Would that I could say the same of m’self. I say, my new-found friend, you are certainly a wondrous creature.”
Hanging the kettle Skruff beamed with pride. “Yup, it’s a nissa thing.”
When the tea was made and they’d eaten some canned kippers and a delightful tasting hardtack-type bread that Skruff called rugkavringer that they dunked, they sat back to enjoy a pipe full before moving on.
As he puffed peacefully Smuntley announced, “It’s a crater you know.”
“Greater than what?” was Skruff’s’ reply.
“No no, this whole valley,” he said with a sweep of his hand. “The whole thing is a crater.”
Skruff puffed and shrugged. “Greater than what?”
Smuntley could see that his translator program would be little help here. He pulled at the long bushy moustache that connected to his long bushy sideburns and thought for a moment. Finally, “The shape of this valley, it’s called a crater. Have you no word that translates?”
“Oh, valley named Bolle. Bolle mean basin,” was his reply.
“Ah yes, quite so, quite so. Now we’re moving on. Well, this crater… er…this ‘basin’ if you will. A meteorite made it.” This elicited nothing but a blank stare. “Alright, we’ll try this: a huge rock flew out of the sky and when it hit the earth it exploded and caused this valley to be formed.”
At this, hot tea flew out of Skruff’s bulbous little nose as he choked on his laughter. “Uy yoy yoy! Smuntley. You sure tell funny joke. Rocks no fly around in sky. Too heavy.”
“Well yes. Don’t you see? It’s precisely their size and weight that sees them captured by a superior astral bodies gravitational influence and… well… allow me to clarify. It’s… it’s… oh, dear.” By this time Skruff was writhing with laughter. “Hoo, stop. My side hurts.”
Smuntley realized he was flogging a dead horse and resignedly said, “Yes, I guess I can tell a good one once in a while, can’t I?”
After their tea and energizing trail lunch, Skruff and Smuntley packed up their belongings, ambled off over the precipice and descended into the crater. The trail was steep and treacherous in some spots and required many switchbacks to complete the traverse to the valley floor.
“I say, old chap, the descent is much easier to take than the climb up. I find myself somewhat chagrined to admit that I am not as young of body as I am of mind.” Smuntley clapped his chest with the handle of his parasol, which doubled nicely as a walking stick, and inhaled deeply. “Ahh! God-blessed good clean air here. Sublime, truly.”
Hearing this, Skruff replied that the air was clean everywhere in the Earthlands, and after a second’s thought added, “‘Cept where there’s poop. Poop stinks.”
Smuntley could barely repress his grin but thoughts of his own ruined homeland cured that. “Where I come from, my diminutive friend, the air has been foully besmirched by the folly of man and his obsession with grotesque contrivances that serve only to placate his laziness and need to go faster… faster… sooner! Much of that world’s precious water supply… now a foul toilet of sludge and sewage. Pesticides, defoliants, fluoridation, chlorination… all culminating in a toxic soup. Acids falling with life-giving rain, of all the damnable things! Even the poor frogs… gone, vanished without a trace. And the ozone layer… my dear God! But would they in all their high-seated power and conceit listen to the wisdom of cooler heads, of kinder, gentler souls? No. Phaw! Curse them to doom for their complacent ignorance. Progress indeed. Smuntley Algernon Kwerm IV of Coventry is well shed of that homo-machinated hell, I can tell you.” He swallowed hard, removed his glasses to wipe his eyes and only then realized how he’d been ranting. He unclenched his fist and said, “Sorry, I’ve quite run on haven’t I? Very unlike me. Stiff upper lip and all that.”
Despite the myriad questions Smuntley’s tirade had inspired, Skruff could see that the strange fellow was becoming uncharacteristically perturbed so, exercising what little self-restraint is inherent to the nissa race, he decide to let the subject of Smuntley’s homeland drop for the present. Instead he pointed to the crystal-clear rushing stream they had been approaching and said, “That okay. No be sad, time-man. Here water no stink like toilet. See?” By way of demonstration, he plopped down on the bank and submerged his fuzzy little face in the frigid water emerging with a pronounced, “Ahh… woo, that good! Cold too.”
They had walked steadily since lunch and now the sun was low in the sky. Filling his canteen and recovering from the discomfiture caused by his unusual but blatant show of emotion he said, “I do believe if we follow this flow it will lead us right to that delightful mere we spied from on high. Any ideas on where to begin the search for your wizard, old bloke?”
“Well,” said Skruff drying his beard with his sleeve, “First things first. We find place to use as base camp then make daily hunts and see what turns up. You right though, this stream lead us right to nice lake. Skruff’s’ mouth all set for fish tonight. Yum yum. Let’s go.”
‘Lead on, captain,” Smuntley replied shouldering his pack and indicating the direction with his parasol/cane.
An easy stroll of about four miles saw the companions standing on the pebbly shore of a picturesque mountain lake as the setting sun turned wispy clouds at the craters’ lip shades of orange and hot pink, edges traced with gold. Neither spoke for many long moments, emotionally intoxicated with the serene panorama before them. Only when a huge hungry bass broke the lakes’ surface in an impossibly accurate lunge for one of the many swarming insects there did Skruff shake off his trance. “Aha, big fish. You be supper tonight,” and off he went to cut a willow pole to fish with.
Smuntley had to laugh. “Why that old bass is as big as you are, Skruff. It gives me pause to wonder exactly who will be the supper and who the suppee.”
Returning with a stolid sprig that he switched to and fro like a buggy whip Skruff handed it to Smuntley saying, “That why you gonna catch him. Skruff set up camp.”
‘Deal,” said Smuntley, who prepared the pole and headed off toward the lake in no small anticipation.
Skruff, on a mission, meets Smuntley Kwerm, a singular individual.