Blackbeard swore again and then stepped through the gap, and a moment later so did his boatman. Shandy and Davies exchanged a glance, shrugged, and followed.
The jungle was gone. In front of them a flat and plain stretched away under the unobscured moon, and a couple of hundred yards ahead was the knee-high coping wall of a circular pool that looked wider than the Roman Colosseum. Way out over the center of the pool hung a vast luminosity that might have been fire or spray, and the dimly glowing masses of it rose and fell as slowly as opals in honey. Staring at the shifting lights, Shandy realized with a chill in his belly that he had no idea how far away they were; at one moment they seemed to be colored glass butterflies glowing in the light from Hurwood's torch within easy arm's reach, but at the next moment they were some astronomical phenomenon taking place far beyond the domain of the sun and planets. The pool, too, Shandy noticed now, was optically tricky - he peered and squinted, but finally had to admit that he had not the remotest idea how tall the coping wall was. Far off to the right and left, slender bridges of some kind rose from the wall and arched high and away out of sight toward the center of the pool.
The buckles on Shandy's boots were now very hot. He burned his hand drawing his knife, but managed, crouching first on one foot and then on the other, to hack the buckles off. He straightened again, trying to ignore the way his leather scabbard smoked when he put the knife back and wondering when he'd start to feel the nails that held his boot soles on. Thank God Blackbeard had forbidden pistols.
"I didn't get much farther than right here," said Blackbeard softly. He turned to Davies and grinned. "Go ahead - walk out to the pool's edge."
Davies swallowed, then took a step forward.
"Stop!" called Hurwood from behind them. He and Friend and Bonnett had just blundered through the gap, stumbled, and then managed to put Beth down more or less gently as they fell to the dark sand. Hurwood was the first to sit up. "Apparent directions are no good here. You could walk in a straight line till you die of starvation, and never get any closer to the Fountain. It would, in all probability, seem slowly to circle you as you walked."
Blackbeard laughed. "I wasn't going to let him get so far that we couldn't get him back. But you're right, that is how it looked. I walked in toward it for two days before I admitted you can't get there from here, and then it took me three more days to walk back out to where we're standing."
Hurwood stood up, brushing himself off. "Days?" he asked drily.
Blackbeard looked sharply at him. "Well, no, now you mention it. The sun rose but never got much past what you'd call dawn before it decided to go down again. Dawn turned straight into dusk, with no real day between."
Hurwood nodded. "We're not really in Florida now - or not particularly, anyway, not Florida any more than we're in every other place. Have you studied Pythagoras in any depth?"
Davies and Blackbeard both admitted that they had not.
"The contradictions implicit in his philosophy are not contradictions here. I don't know whether the circumstances here are the general or some special case - but here the square root of two is not an irrational number."
"Infinity - apeiron - as it exists here, would not have offended Aristotle," added Leo Friend, who, for once, seemed to have forgotten Beth Hurwood.
"Good news for Harry Stottle," said Blackbeard. "But can I get rid of my ghosts here?"
"Yes," said Hurwood. "We've just got to get you to the pool"
Blackbeard waved toward the Fountain. "Lead the way."
"I shall." Hurwood hefted the bundles he'd brought along, then lowered them carefully to the sand.
As Hurwood and Friend crouched to untie the bundles, Shandy sidled over to Beth. "How are you doing?" was all he could think of to say.
"Fine, thank you," she said automatically. Her eyes were unfocused and she was breathing shallowly but very fast.
"Just ... hang on," Shandy whispered, angry at his own helplessness. "As soon as we get back to the beach, I swear, I'll get you out of this ... "
Her knees bent and she was falling; he managed to get his arms around her before she hit the sand, and when he saw that she'd fainted, he laid her down gently on her back. Then Friend had shoved him away and was taking her pulse and lifting her eyelids to peer at her pupils.
Shandy stood up and looked over at Hurwood, who was using the torch to light a lantern that had been in one of the bundles. "How can you do this to your own daughter?" Shandy asked him hoarsely. "You son of a bitch, I hope your Margaret comes back just long enough to curse you and then collapse in a pile of corruption as foul as your damned soul."
Hurwood glanced up incuriously, then returned to his work. He had got the lantern's wick lit, and now he lowered the hood over it. The hood was metal, but not featureless - random-looking slits had been cut into it, and they cast lines of light out across the dark sand.
Shandy took a step toward the old man, but Blackbeard was suddenly in front of him. "Afterward, sonny," the pirate said. "He and I are working together right now, and if you try to foul my plans you'll find yourself sitting on the ground trying to stuff your guts back into your belly." He turned to Hurwood. "You about ready?"
"Yes." Hurwood stuck the still-flaming torch upright in the sand and then stood up with the lantern. The square wooden box now hung at his belt like a fishing creel. "Is she well?" he asked Friend.
"Fine," said the fat man. "She just fainted."
Hurwood raised the lantern in his single hand and stared at the patterns of light-lines it threw onto the sand. After a few seconds of study he nodded and began walking, on a course that led slightly away from the fountain.
Friend managed to stand up with Beth's limp form draped over his shoulders, though the effort darkened his face. He stumped along after Hurwood, the breath whistling in and out of him, and the rest of the group followed, with Bonnett and the odd boatman lurchingly bringing up the rear.
It wasn't a steady walk. Frequently Hurwood paused to peer at the light-lines and fiercely argue mathematical niceties with Friend, and once Shandy heard Friend point out an error in one of "your Black Newton equations." Several times they led the shuffling group in sharp changes of direction, and for a long while they all just marched around and around in the outline of a square; but Shandy had noticed that, no matter what their apparent direction, the moon never shifted from its position above his left shoulder, and he shivered and wasn't tempted to offer any sarcastic comments.
The torch that Hurwood had planted in the sand was as often visible ahead, or off to one side, as behind them, but every time Shandy looked at it it was farther away. The Fountain itself was so difficult to focus on that he couldn't perceive any change in its distance, but he did notice that the two bridgelike structures had moved closer together.
Then he noticed the crowds. At first he thought they were low fog banks or expanses of water, but when he stared hard at the uneven gray lines on the horizon he saw that they were made up of thousands of figures rushing silently back and forth, their arms waving overhead like a field of grass blades stirred by a night wind. "I should never have believed," said Hurwood softly, pausing in his calculations to look at the distant multitudes, "that death had undone so many."
The Inferno, thought Shandy - third canto, if I'm not mistaken. And, at the moment, who cares?
The bridges were very close together now, and the sky was lightening in a direction that might have been east. Hurwood's light-lines were becoming less visible on the sand - which was, in the faint daylight, taking on a rusty hue - and Hurwood and Friend were working faster. The shapes rising and falling above the center of the pool were losing their color and becoming gray, and now looked much more like clouds of water spray than like billows of fire. With the approach of day the total silence seemed even more eerie - there were no bird or insect cries, and neither the unrestful crowds nor the Fountain made any audible sound. The air had cooled since they'd left the jungle, though his feet were warmed by the iron tacks in the soles of his boots, and it was easy to warm his hands by holding them near his smoking knife scabbard.
He had been looking back at the remote dot that was the torch, and so he bumped into Hurwood when the group halted.
There was only one bridge now, and they were right in front of it. It was about six feet wide and paved with broad, flat stones, and stone walls rose at the sides to shoulder height. Though when seen from afar the bridges had seemed to arch steeply up from the pool's edge, from where Shandy now stood it looked almost level, rising only very gradually as it narrowed away with distance and faded among the shifting clouds of the Fountain. In spite of its outlandish location, Shandy thought he'd seen the bridge before.
"After you," said Hurwood to Blackbeard.
The giant pirate, whose belt and boots, Shandy noticed, were smoking and sparking like the match-cords in his mane, stepped onto the bridge -
- and seemed to explode. Fluttering blurs of gray erupted from his mouth, nose and eyes and shot away in all directions, and his clothes leaped and shook on his huge frame like waves in a choppy sea. His hands jigged helplessly in front of him as the gray things blasted out of his sleeves, but in the midst of the ferocious detonations Blackbeard roared and managed to turn around.
"Stay there!" shouted Hurwood. "Don't step off the bridge! It's your ghosts leaving you!"
The exodus was tapering off, but Blackbeard didn't stop jumping. His belt and shoes were on fire, and he grabbed the smoldering hilt of his cutlass, drew the redly glowing blade and touched it to his belt, instantly burning through the leather. He tossed the cutlass out onto the sand and with sizzling fingers snatched his belt buckle loose, drew the pieces of leather free and kicked it all after the sword. He sat down and pulled off his boots, then stood up again and grinned at Hurwood.
"Now abandon all iron," he said.
Ye who enter here, thought Shandy.
"You can step down and just wait for Leo and me right here, with the others," said Hurwood. "Your ghosts are gone, and there's still plenty of the black herb - when we recover the two other torches and get them lit too, there'll be no danger of becoming reinfected on the way out of the jungle. Our bargain is completed, and Leo and I will be back here before long to lead you all back to where this region links with the world you know."
Shandy sighed with relief, and he had started to look around for a place to sit, when he noticed that Friend had made no move to put Beth Hurwood down.
"Wh-who," Shandy stammered, "who's going over and who's staying here?"
"Leo and the girl and myself are going over," said Hurwood impatiently, putting his lantern down on the sand. He took off his belt and shoes, and then in a grotesquely unwitting parody of intimacy he knelt in front of Friend and, one-handed, disconnected the ornate belt buckle from the fat man's belt. Friend's mud-caked slippers evidently contained no iron.
"I'm going over, too," pronounced Blackbeard, not stepping down from the bridge. "I didn't fight my way in here two years ago just to pick up a peltful of ghosts." He looked past Hurwood, and a moment later Stede Bonnett and the boatman stepped forward. Bonnett began unbuckling his belt and stepping out of his shoes, but the boatman's clothes were sewn shut and he was barefoot. "They're coming too," Blackbeard said.
Davies' face had become perceptibly more lined and hollowed since leaving the fires by the seashore, but there was some kind of humor in his eyes as he took a step forward and then crouched to shed his boots.
No, Shandy thought almost calmly. It just can't be expected of me. I'm already on the sidewalk outside reality - I'm simply not going out farther, into the street. None of these people will ever come back, and I'll have to figure out Hurwood's magic lantern just to find my way back to the goddamned jungle! Why did I ever come along? Why did I ever leave England?
He found he was implicitly confident of a way out ... and his face reddened when he realized that it was an axiom called up from early childhood - the conviction that if he cried hard enough and long enough, someone would take him home.
What right had these people to put him into such a humiliating situation?
He looked at Beth Hurwood, draped over Friend's shoulders. She was still unconscious, and her face, though heartbreakingly beautiful to him, was drawn and tautened by recent horrors - innocence intolerably abused. Wouldn't it be - couldn't a case be made for it being - kinder to let her die now, unconscious and not yet ruined?
While still in doubt he caught Leo Friend's eye. Friend was smiling at him with confident contempt, and he shifted his pudgy hand on Beth's thigh.
At the same moment, Hurwood began crooning reassuringly, and he got down on his hands and knees. He muttered some vague endearments and then, gently but strongly, he lowered himself flat, face down on the sand. Still murmuring, he began to flop there in a ponderous rhythm.
Leo Friend blushed furiously and snatched his hand off of Beth's leg. "Mr. Hurwood!" he screeched.
Hurwood, not stopping, chuckled indulgently.
"He seems to snap out of these fits before too long," said Blackbeard. "We'll wait this one out and then get moving."
Are you all crazy? wondered Shandy. Hurwood was the only chance, and a damn slim one at that, of anyone recrossing this bridge alive, and now he's madder than old Governor Sawney. There is no chance of surviving any further advance, and I don't want to take my eternal place among the silent gray legions on this unnatural horizon. Jack Shandy will wait right here, until dark, and when you doomed fools have failed to reappear I'll somehow use Hurwood's lantern to get back to the torch and the jungle and the boats and the shore. I'll no doubt regret this cowardice later, but at least I'll be able to lie in the sun and have a drink while I'm regretting it.