One night, Laura and her family made camp by a lake. They had been following a road called the Ten Road. Or maybe it was called the Ninety-Four Road. Or else it had no name. Pa’s map wasn’t clear. They had turned down more crossroads and cutoffs than Laura could count as the old number roads led them zigging and zagging towards Pepin, the place that Rakesh Halfsilver had marked on his map where winter trade convoys sometimes crossed the frozen Misisip River.
Three days ago, they had taken their present road, which appeared as a squiggly trail of dots on the parchment map, cutting diagonally across the corner formed by two sharper ink pathways. Whether it was called the Ten Road or the Ninety-Four Road, little remained of it. In stretches, the creetrock had crumbled away to nothing. Then the handcar’s wheels would clang and rattle as they bounced over roots and rabbit warrens. The cutoff was plainly little used. The old road was so overgrown with vegetation that they had to stop often while Pa cleared a path with his hatchet. Pa had hoped it would take them to Pepin faster, but after a day or two of fighting against the terrain, he admitted it would have been better to take the long way around.
The cutoff took them through a land covered in lakes, some big some small. Whenever they would spy another lake, Mary and Laura would ask if it had a name. If it didn’t, they could give it a name themselves. There was Pretty Lake and Golden Lake and Star Lake and Jack’s Lake and Lake of Pines and Skinny Lake and Jack’s Lake Two. Soon, it seemed there were so many lakes, they would soon run out of names.
The lake beside their camp that night they had named Frycake Lake. Though the days had been growing warner, the lake was still frozen over. From her place by the fire, Laura could see it through the trees. Its dark glossy surface twinkled, reflecting the starlight above.
It was a clear, warm night, and Pa brought out his two-string. The strings sang as Pa’s bow danced across them, their warbling notes sailing out over Frycake Lake. Pa joined his voice to the instrument’s.
So I drifted down to Old Norleen
Where I happened to be employed
Working for a while on a fishing boat
Right outside of Dillacroy
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I’ve seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue
When he’d played a few songs, Pa set down his bow and told them a story.
THE STORY OF WANE THE BATMAN AND THE CANDLELIGHT OATH
“This story is about Wane of Gothim. You know him as Wane the Batman, one of the greatest batmen of Old Merica. But this story is from before he became a batman. Before he escaped from the labyrinth or fought the godzilla. Before he traveled to the Underworld or made his great journey to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring of Power.
“This story is from many years before all those adventures, from when Wane the Batman was just a boy, no older than you girls. Wane lived with his ma and his pa in their little house high in the sky above the City of Gothim.
“As you know, Gothim was the greatest city of Old Merica. Its lectric towers were taller even than the Great Towers of Shicago. More people lived in just one of Gothim’s towers than today live in all of the big northern woods and the Laketowns and the whole Illinoy combined. The richest merchants in the whole world came to Gothim, to live in the highest parts of its towers, enjoying the finest luxuries brought in from every corner of the Merican Empire.
“Many of these men had grown richer than the Merican President himself, it was said. They owned the towers and the sky wagons and the mills that made fuel for all the city’s marvelous lectric machines.
“Yet, this was also a time of great turmoil. These were the days before the Great Bust, before the beginning of the Hard Years. But even so, Old Merica was not the land of peace and plenty it had once been. Years of drought and floods had plagued the land. Harvests had failed. People were hungry.
“Across the sea, wars on the Empire’s frontiers had disrupted trade, and Gothim’s merchants fretted as their convoys sat home idle. While the silver flowed freely, the powerful men of Gothim had worked with one another and ruled the city together in peace. But seeing their wealth threatened, they grew fearful and greedy. With their stores of silver, they bought guns and hired soldiers. They were warlords, you might say. They didn’t hold towns or forts like General Rhee or Clan Ortega, but they began to wage war with one another for control of Gothim.
“Some of these warlord merchants were cruel and ruthless. But some of them did what they could to protect the people of Gothim and to keep the city from falling apart entirely. Wane’s family, they were of this second type.
“They were one of the richest merchant families in the city. Wane grew up in a house amid the clouds, in the tallest tower of all, surrounded by fabulous lectric toys and delicious foods and a library of paper books on every subject you can imagine. Wane was a smart boy. The best tutors in Gothim were brought in to teach him his letters and instruct him in science and art and all the wondrous secrets of Lectric Times. People said that young Wane was destined to be a great leader of the city, and he worked hard to prepare himself.
“Wane’s father traded in screens and other lectric goods. He taught Wane the lectric arts, to forge the hardmold chips and iron threads that gave life to the screens and fit them together just so. Just like his father, Wane loved to tinker, taking lectric contraptions apart and adjusting them and putting them back together.
“Wane’s mother was a famous doctor. From her, Wane learned all about medicines and herbs and which shakras to treat for which ailments. Together, they all lived happily in their little house atop the tower.
“But, below Wane’s tower, all was not well. Out in the streets, people had been making a stir. They toppled over Gothim’s statues and smashed its big beautiful windows. They set fires that threatened to climb to the very tops of its towers, just like in the March Mayhem that would soon sweep across the whole Empire. Yet, for a time, life continued for young Wane much as it had. His family kept him safe in his tower, safe from rival warlords and their soldiers, safe from the mobs in the streets.
“Then, one day, everything changed. The day that the lights went out.
“This had happened before. From time to time, the lectric fuel that powered Gothim’s towers would run out. Or else the underground canals that carried it from the mills would clog up or break. Suddenly, everything would go quiet and dark.
“Now, Wane, he was scared of the dark. Remember, he wasn’t used to long dark nights of the Big Woods like you girls. He knew only the bright lectric lights of Gothim, day and night alike. Whenever the lectric mills would fail, he would press his face against his tower window and look out. Where the glowing peaks and valleys of the great city had stretched out below him just a moment before, now there was only empty blackness. Just imagine how that must have felt for a boy like Wane.
“As things grew worse and worse in Old Merica, the darkness came to Gothim more and more often. The lectric light would disappear. Maybe for an hour, maybe for a day. And so, that night, Wane peered fearfully from his tower window, praying that the city’s lectric fuel would flow again soon. The darkness seemed thicker than usual that night. Wane stared down into the formless shadow that had swallowed Gothim, trying to make out the shapes of the buildings he knew must be there. Long hours passed and still the light did not return.
“Suddenly, he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Wane’s father told him that they must leave. Their home in the tower wasn’t a safe place anymore. They must travel to a new home. I expect you girls know a bit of how Wane must have felt about that.
“But he knew that his mother and father knew what was best and that he must be brave and helpful on the journey. So he quickly packed up his favorite things and readied himself to go with his parents to their bunker outside the city.
“They left that very morning. The lectric boxes that carried people up and down the towers had stopped, so Wane and his mother and father and their guards and servants all had to walk step after step down the endless stairs of their tall tower. They were all day on those stairs, and everyone was very tired by the time they came to the bottom. More of their servants met them there, with lectric cars all packed and ready for the trip.
“Like a grand trade convoy, the cars made their way through Gothim, one following close behind another. It was slow. The mobs had made many parts of the city impassable. Sometimes, the streets were blocked with rubble, and Wane’s father would have to have his guards get out of their cars to clear a path. Soon, night was falling once again.
“Wane’s convoy was crawling slowly through a part of the city that had been badly damaged by the fires, when they heard a cry for help. There was a young woman lying by the side of the road, holding her stomach in pain. Wane’s mother told their driver to stop. Before anyone could argue, she had already opened the door and jumped from the car, clutching her doctor bag.
“The convoy halted. Wane’s mother knelt beside the injured woman, attempting to treat her wounds. Wane’s father ran to her, pleading with her to get back in the car, but it was her oath as a doctor to help the sick if she could. They both huddled there by the side of the road as Wane watched them from the car’s open door.
“Wane climbed from the car and took a step towards them, about to call out, when, suddenly, the street was filled with commotion. All at once, his father’s guards were out of their cars, rifles in their hands. Wane turned. Other men were emerging from the towers and crowding into the street on either side of the convoy.
“Some stories say these men worked for a rival warlord. In other versions, they’re simply bandits. For my part, I like to think Wane never found out. He would wonder his whole life who they were and what they wanted. To him, they would always just be men with guns, spreading chaos and pain because that’s what men with guns do. They were a force of nature, as faceless as the droughts or the floods or the darkness.
“Swiftly, shouts turned to shots. Wane never saw it happen. He looked away for a moment. When he looked back, both his mother and his father were slumped over, motionless by the roadside. Wane tried to run to them, but someone grabbed him and dragged him back, kicking and howling.
“Who do you suppose it was?
“That’s right. It was Alfred Butler, the captain of Wane’s father’s soldiers. Butler threw Wane into the back of the convoy’s lead car. It was a fearsome car with heavy black armor. In the rear seat, Butler held Wane down and shouted at the car to drive away. Though it had no driver, the car heard the alarm in Butler’s voice, and it knew how serious the situation was. The big black car took off by itself, whirling around obstacles and slamming roadblocks aside with its strong iron armor.
“That faithful lectric car didn’t stop until it brought them all the way to the secret entrance to Wane’s family’s bunker. The bunker was hidden away in the side of a mountain outside Gothim. When the car approached, rocks rolled aside, making a doorway for the car.
“Only once they were safely inside did Butler release his grip on young Wane, allowing the boy to throw open the car’s door and tumble sobbing out into the cavernous bunker. Now, you girls know that Alfred Butler and that marvelous black car will become like family to Wane the Batman and help him on his many adventures. But right then, Wane hated them both.
“’Take me back!’ he shouted, his voice echoing off the bunker’s high empty ceilings.
“But neither Butler nor the car would let Wane leave the bunker. Tears stinging his eyes, Wane ran from them, into the bunker’s sprawling maze of underground rooms and alcoves.
“Deeper and deeper into the bunker he ran. Soon, he was passing through rooms that weren’t yet finished, where the walls were nothing but the bare rock of the mountain, cold and wet. In a daze of grief, he let his body carry him onward, down down through winding tunnels leading him deeper beneath the mountain.
“The tunnels grew dark as Wane left the bunker’s lectric lights behind, but he kept going, feeling his way along the damp cavern walls. Blackness and silence surrounded him. The only sound was the drip drip drip of the cave walls’ weeping, echoing through the tunnels. For once, Wane was not afraid of the dark. There was no place inside him for fear. There was only grief and anger.
“Finally, he felt the tunnel widen. Only then did Wane pause and reach into his back pocket. There, he found a candle and a box of matches. He must have taken them from one of the supply rooms he had passed in his flight, he realized, though he had hardly been conscious of his actions.
“Wane lit his candle. The glow yawned and stretched, bringing shape to the cave around him. Jagged needles of rock hung from the ceiling and more stabbed upwards from below, reaching for him like a thousand withered claws. As the flame quivered and swayed, hostile shadows danced around him, leaping in and out of hidden corners and crevices. Taking a step forward, Wane saw that the floor of the cave dropped away. He held his candle over the precipice and peered down. He could see nothing but darkness, stretching down and down into a seemingly bottomless abyss.
“Even then, to his surprise, Wane did not feel fear.
“With his free hand, the boy wiped the tears from his cheeks. He walked along the side of the chasm, through the forest of stone needles that grew from the cave floor. The spikes rose all around him, straight and rigid, some no taller than the toe of his boot, some looming above his head, reminding Wane of the towers of Gothim.
“Eventually, he came to a stone tower, waist-high and flat on its top like a tree stump. Wane set his candle down on top of the stone and knelt before it. There, beside the mouth of that bottomless chasm, the reflection of the candle’s flame flickering within his eyes, he swore his oath.
“‘I swear by the spirits of my parents,’ Wane whispered, ‘to avenge their deaths. I will become a batman. I will spend the rest of my life warring on all lawlessness, and I will bring the light back to the City of Gothim.’”