Two days later, I was ready for my first hopping experience. I had studied the map extensively and done numerous calculations, but could only conclude one thing: it was a long way. A damned long way.
Now, the official measurement in Mandaria is called a quart, though they don’t seem to be aware of this in the First Fist. A quart is what you get if you split the island of Mandaria into quarters and then measure from the centre along the line of one of those quarters. A quart is therefore about half the width of Mandaria. Go on, try it out. It’s true.
The other thing about a quart is that it’s not strictly defined, but it is always about the same size. About twenty-five kilo-skips in old-Mikaetan money.
Anyway, I digress. The journey from Callij to Mallis was more than a quart, but I also took a rather mad route. The trip through the mountains was draining, so in reality a quart is probably a little more than my journey from the merchant’s abode up to the tip of Mandaria. That took me a good couple of days, but it was a pretty casual pace on solid roads.
So, time for a comparison. What is the distance of this trip I am about to embark on? It looks, by all my measurements, to be about twenty quarts. Twenty! That is a lot of days of travel, and I haven’t got to the worst of it yet.
A plea to creative readers: as I look upon this, my eyes grow bored by the uniformity! I crave inspirational images, but alas, my hands fail me in that regard. I am not a ruddy artist. Are you? If you are inspired to articulate your (related!) imagination, then please, send it to me, and I will refresh this blot with its vibrancy.
That is a lot of days of travel for a fit man in fine boots on a fine road. This is not how I will be travelling. I will be hopping.
Hopping. It is just as mad as it sounds. The basic problem is that the western side of Xeidan is a bit of a swampy mess, and any sort of permanent road is utterly out of the question. What the people of the First Fist resort to instead is a haphazard travel arrangement which involves a combination of a coracle (a small round boat that is about as stable as an over-pampered prince) and rock-skipping (jumping from rock to rock). This is going to take some time.
“Not got better shoes ‘n that?”
I looked at my feet and scowled. These were fabulous shoes! They had become my pride and joy, but then I looked at Hop-Man’s feet and understood (I still think of my acquired guide as Hop-Man, even though he once told me his name). My shoes were great for walking, but this trip would involve precious little walking. I needed something soft and waterproof.
“Where did you acquire those delightful articles?”
He scrunched up his expressive and heavily lined face, and followed my eyes. “Me shoes? Made ‘em.”
That was actually quite impressive. They appeared to be soft leather and were tied right up above his shins. And best of all, when he showed me, the inner part was designed such that the boot was water-proof, with the tying-lips being connected to the boot itself.
“And how would I acquire a pair?”
He grinned and held out his hand.
I’d assumed that Hop-Man was a bit of a simpleton, but he was coolly and calmly doing me out of pocket. I’ve even taken to loosening some of the emergency stash in my more private places. He’d be weeding that out soon enough.
With my newly acquired boots on my feet, I followed Hop-Man down to the swamp-line. There were files of identical coracles tied up there, but Hop-Man went straight for a very specific specimen. It was reed-made, tightly knit, and he stepped easily into its round bottom. I, with my bag over my shoulder and land-lover feet, promptly followed and almost tipped straight out the other side. Eventually I managed to squat in the thing.
“Keep yer legs apart. It’ll be easier.”
“Can’t I just squat like this for the journey?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Not if ya want’a get anywhere. I need balance.”
“Yip. Grab an oar would’ya. And stick yer bag in the middle.”
He had already dropped his bag right in the centre of the unsteady boat, but the problem was that the little vessel was barely waterproof. There was a puddle of water at the bottom, and though my feet were safe in my new shoes, my bag was not. And my precious paper was in the bag too! This was all getting a bit much.
“Can’t I hold it?”
He shook his head. “Balance.”
I rolled my eyes to make a point, and then spent a period of time balancing my bag on top of his bag. His bag was leather again, nice and resistant to the wetness, but mine was a canvas bag. It would beat away the worst of the rain, but it wouldn’t take a dunking.
After I’d managed to wedge my feet into a position of relative security, Hop-Man pushed off with his oar. Before us was the Inner-Blue, a deep and wide sea meant for ships and tough naval vessels. I gulped. But as we bobbed out from the shore and up the coast, the reality crawled upon me. This wasn’t the Inner-Blue.
After perhaps a morning of coracling up the coast, at a decent pace I might add, I sucked up the bravery and looked over the edge. The water here was barely more than waist high, and the shallows seemed to stretch all about. That meant that the tidal effects and buffeting from waves was barely existent, and a coracle turned out to be a fine mode of transport. I even joined in with the oaring at times, though came perilously close to falling in.
“How often do you hop up the coast?”
He shrugged. “I take fish to Salt-Town.”
“But you don’t often go to Allazon?”
“So how many days will it take to get to Allazon?”
He shrugged again. He was facing away, piloting the oracle through the water. “Maybe twen’y-five or thir’y.”
That wasn’t actually as bad as I’d feared. Less than a quart a day, but still. Not bad at all.
It was early afternoon when Hop-Man led us back to shore. We sat on a slimy rock and ate a simple lunch of salt bread and dried fish. It was surprisingly pleasant, though it could have done with a nice wine. Instead we had terribly weak ale which left a rank taste in my mouth. Oh well.
I got up and stepped gingerly back towards the water.
“Where ya goin’?”
I looked back over my shoulder at Hop-Man. “Are we not diving back in?”
He shook his head. “Why d’ya think it’s called hoppin’?”
I clambered back and was then instructed to heft my possessions onto my back, as did Hop-Man. We then hauled up the coracle and held it over our heads, like a tent. The damn thing was surprisingly heavy.
“How long do we have to have this thing over our heads?”
“What? The whole afternoon. Why can’t we punt it?”
“’Cos o’ those rocks.” He pointed back to the water, and of course he was correct. There were sharp rock fragments everywhere along the coast at this point, and that would be a nightmare to travel through.
“Couldn’t we go around the rocks? Go out a bit further.”
“Tide’ll catch us. We walk a Salt-Town.”
Of course, the fact that it is called hopping should have given me all the evidence I need. It was never going to be punting all the way. The one thing the coracle did do was shade me from the hot sun, but that was quickly countered by the sheer effort of carrying the thing.
“What happens if you punt alone? You can’t carry this by yourself.”
Hop-Man turned, smiling, revealing his gappy grin. “This is a two-man. If I was alone, I’d ‘ave a one-man.”
“But what about your cargo? You couldn’t take this and a batch of fish for salting.”
“I’d bring a barge and float that alongside me.”
It transpired that a barge was actually little more than a wooden float that could be dragged through the rocky shallows. I was half-inclined to ask why I couldn’t be barged the rest of the way, but held myself. Hop-Man was doing a lot for me already.
Mother was dipping fast when we reached the revered place called Salt-Town, and Hop-Man was absolutely correct: Salt-Town was smaller than Shithole. But its size was constrained by its positioning between two rocky-outcrops, and despite its small size, it immediately felt more bustling. I let Hop-Man lead the way.
We deposited our coracle at some sort of boat-park, and there didn’t appear to be any sort of security or filing system. Then again, all the coracles were almost identical, so what was the point in any of that? Hop-Man then led us into the small town proper and we sought out lodgings. It appeared the same complex system of lodgings was in place in Salt-Town, and I had to stay in a separate inn to Hop-Man, but at least he told me what to do. I rather suspect he was taking a cut of the coin I gave his inn-keeper.
In my room I did some quick maths. Thirty nights at this sort of rate for room and food would really dent my savings, so I needed to find a way to extricate some money. Flip-coin was the obvious way to go, and I played a few flips that night. Winnings were scant, but it did cover our meals and a drink, so that was something. It didn’t look like they needed an architect in Salt-Town.
The following morning I took in the place, bathed as it was under the morning rays of Mother. The salt-works dominated the coastal side of the town, consisting of timber drying-houses and salt-packing-houses. Boats bustled up to the salt-works, and part of me wanted to seek passage on one of those vessels. The prospect of hopping for a third of a season was not hugely appealing, and the fare would probably be cheaper than all the board I’d have to pay.
But Hop-Man caught up with me, smiling widely. I was starting to like this gap-toothed man and his funny ways, and I couldn’t upset him by rejecting him. Part of me was surprised he was willing to hop all the way to Allazon, and the words tickled my lips, but I kept my mouth closed.
“Shall we get hopping?”
“Yip. Good day for it. Let’s hope it stays like ‘at.”
I looked up and took in the beautiful blue sky, broken only by the odd puffy cloud. I hadn’t considered what hopping would descend to in the case of wild rains and high winds. I looked back to the bustling boats again.
“How do those boats get so close when we had to walk into Salt-Town?”
“There’s a channel. We can punt from the other side o’ the channel. No clambering today.”
Well that was a small mercy. Now I just needed to hope for about twenty-five more small mercies. We made our way to the coracle-park.