As the dark gray of twilight merged into the near black of night, Justin trudged through the lantern-lit entrance to the campground. Carrying a bundle in both arms, he tiredly paced over the trampled grass, dodging the tree trunks, toward the corner of the facility where their tent was pitched.
...... The rain had stopped for the moment. The puddles had drained to sticky mud, and the warm, damp air carried the odor of dank vegetation. The overhead foliage contributed only a slow, sporadic drip. Soggy dead leaves carpeted the ruts left in the grass by the many other hurrying campers.
...... From around the numerous cooking fires, people called out various cheerful greetings and invitations. He quickly acknowledged them with a polite word or a nod, without stopping for conversation.
...... Halting in front of their own travel-worn tent, he rapidly looked around, then set down his bundle of heavy fabric against the canvas wall, untied his two swords from his back, and ducked down to look beneath the stiff canvas of the folded-back end flap.
...... Misty was stretched out on the short stack of soft blankets, which formed their bed, with one blanket loosely wrapped around her, and her head laid sideways on her bare arms. Her muddy boots stood on a coarse mat next to the tent wall, while her drying clothes hung from the sagging support rope.
...... Grinning, he squatted on the damp ground in front of the triangular opening. "Ready to hike down the trail to dinner?" he inquired in a hearty tone. "The mud's mostly dried." He tiredly rubbed his forehead, while quietly laughing.
...... She murmured something inaudible without opening her eyes. "Tonight's dinner already is warming over the fire," she carefully stated, a moment later. "You certainly must have noticed that, when you walked in." She waved one hand in a tiny gesture. "Hello, Stranger! Your sense of humor still isn't any good, like I've said before. Several times before! Has it quit raining yet?" she suddenly asked.
...... "It does seem like a big change to be working apart, after traipsing through the forest side by side for so long." He waved away a persistent gnat. "We need to meet for lunch from now on. I do miss your hourly grumbling." He rubbed his back with one hand, then cleared his throat. "My grumbling," she commented, then yawned. "Never mind!"
...... "Yes, the rain has stopped, subject to change without notice." Pushing into the tent, he sat on the edge of the blankets. "And yes, I did see the stew kettle. But I thought that you didn't like travelers stew."
...... "I don't. But tonight, I'm exhausted. I'm not going to walk all the way down to the restaurant. For anything whatever! And they don't deliver." She paused to sniff and rub her nose without opening her eyes. "I don't grumble every hour! Every two hours, maybe." She reached out, found his knee, and patted it. "Your offer of lunch is a good idea, starting tomorrow. Also, when the stew's warm, you can serve. A bowl of stew and a thick hunk of warm bread, please. And don't forget to bring me a cup of tea, when the water's boiling."
...... "Hard day?" he chuckled, catching her hand and stroking it.
...... "Business has been very brisk." She snuggled deeper beneath the blanket, ignoring the humid warmth. "There hasn't been a commission Scribe here for some time, and there's a backlog of letters to be sent. I've been working nonstop from dawn until half an hour ago, when I ran out of materials." She paused to rub her nose again. "I had planned to stop by the blacksmith's to tell you hello, but I simply didn't find any time. I missed lunch, and I've used up all the paper I had in stock, every scrap." She shifted position, bunching her arms beneath her head. "Tomorrow, I'll have to find somewhere to buy some more. If I can! It seems that at the moment all of the other Scribes are out with caravans somewhere." She stopped to yawn once more. "That's my day. So how's your business been?
...... "Forging ahead . . . if you'll pardon the expression." He peered out at the pots hanging over the flames. In the distance were the sounds of a flute and a drum -- other campers entertaining. A stanza later, two more flutes joined in.
...... She made an indescribable noise in answer, then raised her head and looked up. "Hey! Did you find some fabric for the tent patches? That oversewn section at the back top is so threadbare it's leaking again."
...... He nodded and stroked the top of her head, lightly running his fingers over the blonde snarls. "I'll work on the worst of them early tomorrow morning, and see how far I get. There's a backlog of small knives to make, also. Everyone must be planning to slit everyone else's throat." He studied the fabric overhead, so heavily patched that it appeared mottled in the dim light reflected from the campfire.
...... "One can hope," she tartly replied, then tapped the blankets under her. "We need another ground sheet too. I'm running out of ways to refold this one. What's the music from?"
...... "A wedding," he advised. "We're invited."
...... "I'm too exhausted." She laid her head back on her arms. "You can go over. Don't worry about me."
...... "I declined with thanks for both of us, already." He settled down, leaning on one elbow. "I'm tired out too. I expect this boom market'll taper off in another dozen items or so. But it's bringing in the cash, which is what we need most." He glanced again at the pots over the fire -- they were beginning to steam. "There's a shortage of suitable metal here, and that'll limit how much more I can make."
...... "You may have to wait for one of the caravans to return. They usually have metal scrap to trade." She turned over to stare up at the top of the tent. "The music's nice for a change."
...... "Better than listening to the neighbors arguing," he laughed. He got up to check on the stew, added a few more twigs to the fire, took off the steaming teapot, and poured out a mug of tea.
...... "I noticed a small problem with the wind, late this afternoon," he remarked, returning to balance a filled, heavy mug on the blankets. "It kept moving around the compass. Just before a sudden rain."
...... She turned her head long enough to look over and laugh. "I have to practice sometime. I hope it wasn't too obvious." Bunching up part of the blanket under her head, she reached for the mug and sniffed at it.
...... "It wasn't obvious at all. If I hadn't been trying to keep the draft on the forge fire adjusted, I'd never have noticed what was going on." He sat back on the edge of the blankets. "Also, I've had the benefit of prior examples."
...... "That's good. It not being obvious, I mean. The people here think of me as a Scribe, and nothing else. I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible." She sipped tea. "As you predicted, everyone seems to know me. The BlackRider warrior's companion. Glamour by association," she laughed, waving her hand. The tea mug slopped, and she wiped it with the edge of her palm. "I'll admit that you were right about that fight. You want it in writing? When I get some more paper?"
...... "Later," he chuckled. He drew his legs up and rested his elbows on them. "We now seem to have a Bazaar-wide reputation. So it did work, as I needed it to. Which is probably why we received an invitation to the party out there." He gestured toward the tent opening. "People have been dropping by the blacksmith's shop, just to say hello. Quite different from when we first arrived."
...... "True, we most likely do have a reputation, as much gossips as most of these people are." She finished the tea and set the empty mug aside.
...... "There doesn't seem to be much else around here for entertainment," he agreed, wiping his hand on his stained pants. "Except for arguing and gossiping."
...... "I wouldn't exactly say that," she countered in a sultry tone, then laughed.
...... "For them!" He picked up the empty mug to toy with it. "I think half of what I sold today was the result of who made the knives, not what they were truly worth." He paused for a long laugh, tossing the mug up to bounce on the canvas ceiling, then catching it again. "But, whatever works. So missing the prize money hasn't been all that bad. Which reminds me." He tugged at the mended sleeve of his shirt. "We need to go clothing shopping tomorrow. This outfit has gone its limit. Maybe after lunch tomorrow, if business slackens some."
...... "Okay. I'll met you at the blacksmith's shop, and we can go whenever you're ready." She gestured that away. "For your information, a lot of your sales was from the next caravan stocking up. It's a big one, and it's leaving the day after tomorrow. Most of the work, which I picked up, was sending out advance notices. Oh!" She stopped to motion with one hand. "I saw Roldoff and his partner, the little manager guy.
...... "Doing what?" He held up the empty mug. "More tea?"
...... She shook her head. "Roldoff is hiring out as a caravan guard. He's big enough! I don't know what his partner is doing, other than going along."
...... "At least the man will have eating-work," Justin observed, peering toward the steaming kettle. "Where is this next caravan going? Or rather, where do all these caravans travel to? Just a minute."
...... He went to the campfire and filled two large wooden bowls with thick, steaming soup, pushing a big wooden spoon into each, before putting the kettle aside to cool. At the front of the campground, the wedding party was in full assembly beneath dozens of stub-candle lanterns. Boisterous laughter was drowning out the efforts of the musicians. With the warm loaf of bread tucked under his arm, he returned to the tent and placed one bowl next to her, before tearing off a portion from the bread.
...... "The caravans. They loop through the forest, following age-old routes." She turned onto her side to stir the vegetable mixture. "They buy here whatever they think they can sell, then travel to the lesser bazaars to sell there, and to buy the food and household goods which they sell here." She paused to yawn between swallows. "This was an excellent idea," she added with a wave of the spoon.
...... "It does taste very good tonight," he agreed between mouthfuls. "Then the caravans must do a type of barter-exchange, manufactured goods for cottage industries. Do any of these caravans go to Center? You said it was a sort of free area."
...... "It tastes good enough," she corrected. "Your stew recipe has not improved any." She paused to swallow. "Last month, I would have said no. Now, I don't know. There's no long trains of people and pack animals coming into Center, but there are individual traders on foot. Besides the ships, I mean. I have been wondering, if some of the goods, which show up in Center's market, come from right here. Everything I've seen so far sure looks the same!"
...... He gestured with his bowl. "I don't have a recipe. It's made strictly out of what's available cheap. Besides, this batch is your cooking, and you can't blame it on me." He finished his soup and tore off another part of the bread. "What's the market at Center like? Or for that matter, what's the town like?"
...... "Then it is your recipe! I bought the ingredients the same way," she laughed, while moping up the last of the broth with a fragment of bread. "Whatever was cheap! Plus, whatever I particularly like, of course."
...... For a few minutes, she listened to the music, waving the empty bowl to the beat of the drum. Finally, she put the dish aside. "Center's in a narrow, long valley. I think I've said that before. There's a lake at the north end, the main market is right at the lake's edge, and all of the buildings climb the ridge behind it." She gestured with the spoon before dropping it into the bowl.
...... He stacked the dishes together with the spoons on top and set them beside the door opening. Tearing apart the last of the bread, he put half on the blanket beside her and began munching on his share.
...... "The main road runs along the lake front." She drew in the air with a forefinger. "Then it goes north toward the pass, on over, and down into the cultivated land in the next valley. That one I know well. It's a nice, short trip for a picnic. Not that I've ever traveled it very far. Too many Outlaws!" She paused at a snapping noise from the fire. It had tossed glowing embers over the side of its stone edging, where they slowly died out in the half-dried mud. "Center's market isn't much different than this one. Only that the buildings are stone and wood, not fabric and wishful-thinking. The tradegoods certainly look the same. So do the peddlers and other thieves!"
...... "Then the town's a crossroads?" Through the tent doorway, he watched a worker go by, a huge load of firewood tied to the man's back. The man vanished in the direction of the wedding feast.
...... "Of all kinds. But mostly, a ship's crossroads." She idly brushed bread crumbs off of the blanket. "Another road goes south along the lake and down through the farmlands of the valley. The only other trail of any significance climbs the ridge behind the town and goes down the other side. That valley is all cleared for farmland too." She motioned with a brushing gesture, before turning to stare up at the top of the tent, her hands wrapped behind her head. "Those roads don't go anywhere much. They're for farm carts and so on. The individual traders come out of the forest, following ruts just like the ones we've been traveling on."
...... "And what's Center like? The town itself." Setting aside the bread, he pulled off his boots and rubbed one foot.
...... "The town laps down from the ridge and stops at the lake shore, which is right at the main road. There's still trees there, sort of a parkland where one can walk. It's a lot colder there than in the forest here, and there's gazebos to protect people from the wind. Not many ever go there, but I did, to get away from everyone at the Temple." She stopped to wave a hand, then straightened the blanket. "One can look out over the lake, or up the slope and see the town set out in ripples of paved walks and brooks and gardens and buildings . . . mostly of wood, but some of stone. At night, there's a lot of Everlast Candles glowing, so the place is a mass of twinkling lights and reflections off of the fountains and the small streams."
...... "It sounds very pretty there," he encouraged, as he pulled his boots on again. Outside of the tent, some small animal raced noisily through the shrubbery. The distant laughter and music had died away, replaced by the quieter crackle of the campfire and the low moan of the wind through the leaves.
...... "It is that," she replied, then was silent for several moments. "After strolling along the lakeshore or watching the ships at the wharf on the lower end, a person can walk through narrow inclined streets, up small stairs, and along little terraces, until one finally reaches the Temple. It sits on a rock outcrop, overlooking the entire scene. Could I have some more tea?" She waved toward the empty mug before continuing. "The lower part of the town is the commercial area, then the main buildings. Above that are the houses."
...... Picking up the empty bowls, he went to the fire, took down the teapot, and filled two mugs. She turned over to watch him through the doorway, pulling the blanket up over her shoulders. He added more wood to the fire, waited a minute to watch it catch, then sauntered back. Sitting again on the blankets, he handed her one mug and put the second on the ground beside him.
...... She smiled her thanks and sipped tea. "The Council Hall and the craft guild halls are the main buildings, about halfway up the slope. The law courts are mixed in there too . . . people like that. Those buildings are built around large plazas, where everyone comes to stroll in the warmth of the afternoons. Unless there's thunderstorms."
...... He toyed with his own tea, while staring out at the forest. A thin mist was edging in, pushed about by the weak breeze. The distant lanterns were diffuse sparks in the darkness.
...... "I enjoyed living there, while I did," she finally added, after draining the last swallow. "It's nice to be part of something, to be doing something worthwhile." She looked over, both hands wrapped around the warm mug. "I'm going to love showing you around there."
...... "You mentioned the Temple. What's it like? A large building?" He finished his tea and put the mug beside the doorway.
...... "It's really several large buildings." She picked up a dead leaf, which the wind had pushed in, and tossed it back outside. "It's a hexagon shape and surrounded by a high wall. The courtyards are at several levels, and they all are paved, which makes them quite warm. There's gardens at the sides of most of them for vegetables and herbs. And at least one fountain somewhere." She played with the corner of the blanket, folding it into a thick triangle. "That was where I lived, while I was studying. I had my own little room at the back of the last courtyard, next to the Crystal Hall. I had a balcony there too, where I could sit and look out over the town and the lake."
...... "The what hall?" he inquired, idly watching the thickening drizzle. Trickles of water began to run down the outside of the tent, forming small streams which flowed away into the grass. The last of the mist was being rained away.
...... "The Crystal Hall, the building where the Master Crystal is kept." With a fast flick of her fingers, she flattened out the fabric triangle. "There's a high-ceilinged atrium and a meeting room, then the big room which holds the Crystal itself. Behind that, are the suites belonging to the Five Administrators and a bunch of little rooms for the senior students." She moved to the side of the bed and readjusted the blanket. "Long ago and far away. But maybe a little closer than it was yesterday."
...... "You must miss it," he acknowledged. "Can anyone see the building? Or is it members only?"
...... "I do miss it." She suddenly grinned. "But there's been compensations! Anyone can go there, but it's such a maze of stairs and passages and odd doors that most people avoid it. Outsiders are very unusual inside the main buildings." She snuggled still deeper under the blanket. "Thanks for dinner."
...... "You're quite welcome," he laughed. "All I had to do was dish it out. Which also reminds me."
...... Going out into the fine rain, he washed the bowls and other utensils, put away the leftovers, doused the fire, and did his few remaining chores. By the time he had returned, she was asleep. He pulled off his boots, hung up his wet clothes, and crawled into bed next to her, careful to avoid waking her.
...... Outside somewhere, a bird fluttered from one bush to another. The campsite was mostly dark and completely quiet with only the slight wind nudging at the tree limbs.
Justin awoke, startled by the noise. "Now, what's all that?" he demanded loudly over the din. Clutching the blanket in one hand, he rubbed his eyes with other.
...... Next to him, Misty stirred and sat up. "What's going on now?" Her tone was filled with sleepy irritation. "It's not morning yet. It can't be."
...... The din was radiating from the direction of the camp's entrance -- a thing which sounded like a bass drum, something which clunked and rattled, something else which clanked like a large, poorly cast bell.
...... Pulling away to lean on his elbow, he shoved the tent flap aside. Daybreak was only a gray suggestion among the dripping trees. All around, other campers were stirring, peering out, and scrambling from their fabric dwellings. Most of them contented themselves with looking around aimlessly or staring at the entrance.
...... Lying back again, she yanked the blanket up over her. "I don't care what it is. Just let 'em go 'way. Back to wherever they came from, and as quickly as possible!" She turned on her side and tried to pull the blanket over her head.
...... In a moment, more yelling became audible -- several voices, each trying to outshout the others. "Everybody up! The Bazaar is moving. This morning. Right now. Everybody up. Get packed. The Bazaar is moving. Right now. This morning. Everybody."
...... "I do believe that I've heard that raucous crow's voice once before," he remarked, flipping the tent flap closed again. "That first caravan, where you sent those letters. Remember?" He tugged at the blanket.
...... "Mola." She gave up and raised herself on an elbow. "That voice sounds exactly like Mola." After a large yawn, she continued: "Her caravan must have arrived here again. I knew that it was due. I don't recognize anyone else."
...... As the noise from the entrance diminished into the distance, the bustle from the other campers became louder -- people moving in a rush, orders called out then changed, the snapping of shrubbery trampled under hurried boots.
...... "You know, I have this odd premonition about the Bazaar." He lay back down to stare at the dark, patched, sloped ceiling of the tent. "A feeling of motion, of travel. Of pandemonium!"
...... With a brusque toss of her hand, she shoved the blanket to the end of the bed, then kicked it off entirely. "You know, by the strangest of coincidences, I have exactly the same feeling," she retorted, holding up one leg. "On my feet! Where the blisters have almost healed. Almost!" She added a deep sigh. "I suppose the next question is, what do we do about it?" She made a fist and slugged the middle of the bed. "Why does this godawful jumble-sale have to move right now? We just got here! Why now?"
...... Standing, he reached for the dry, wrinkled clothing which hung from the tent's support rope. "Do we have enough money to go to Center from here, now? Not continuing with the Bazaar to wherever it's moving to?" He started pulling garments down.
...... "Maybe, maybe not. It'd be close." She shrugged and sat up again, running her fingers through her snarled hair. "How much would the travel expenses be to go along with the Bazaar people? Two or three day's journey on foot, food and fodder, wear and tear, and so on like that."
...... "I already have the wear and tear," he answered tartly, as he inspected another rip in his pants leg. "I was going to buy some new clothes today. So much for that!" He tunelessly whistled, as he put on his clothing. "Given the present circumstances, it doesn't make much difference how much it'll cost. We need to earn more money." He took down her clothes and dropped them on the bed. "So we'd best move to the Bazaar's next location, regardless of travel costs, and set up shop once again."
...... "By another of those coincidences, I have to agree with you. That we ought to move with the Bazaar." She sorted through her own garments. "And given the present circumstances, as you said, we'd best start getting ready right now. Good morning, and so on. What's for breakfast at this hour?"
...... "Clear water and cold bread," he sourly replied, pushing his way past the doorway flap. Half of the tents on the campsite were down and being folded. Three handlers from the stable were herding all of the pack animals into the clearing, while people scurried around assembling the loads. The tubby camp proprietor noisily was directing his own staff in the dismantling of the campsite.
...... While Justin strapped on his two swords, Misty splashed cold water on her face. She stretched and yawned once again, before reaching for the first of the tent stakes. "Let's get to work!"
...... "Okay," he called over his shoulder, as he trotted toward the stable hands to reclaim his packhorse from the tight, milling throng of animals and other owners.
...... Because they owned so little, they were packed, the horse loaded up, and ready to move before most of the other campers were prepared -- but enough recently acquired tradegoods were left that each had a bulging knapsack to carry.
...... "I never knew before that there were advantages to poverty," she groused, shaking her shoulders to settle the knapsack straps.
...... "I think I've been demoted." He heaved his bundle up on his shoulders on top of the swords. "But we can't afford a second horse. You were right about the jackass part."
...... "I'd forgotten about that," she laughed, catching hold of the packhorse's tether. "Demoted to money guard, anyway. You are carrying the cash on you, aren't you?"
...... He nodded and tapped the left side of his knapsack.
...... One of the official guides peremptorily motioned them to join the line which was assembling on the trail. After two more small groups were added to the gathering, the woman waved to her assistants and started off along the muddy path, followed in a strung-out train by the ex-campers.
...... Misty waited a moment to allow a gap to form behind the preceding group, then tugged gently on the leather lead. Yanking on a shoulder strap, Justin led the way down the trail. Behind them, other groups shuffled into motion.
...... "Why does this place move, anyway?" he demanded. He slipped on a wet patch but caught his balance.
...... "The Bazaar just moves. Every few weeks." She did not look up from the treacherous footing. "It just wanders from place to place. No reason is ever given, other than the unexplained needs of the Bazaar's administrators."
...... "It sounds about as unreasonable as my own outfit," he grumbled. "My leaders, I mean. What I'd call my tribe."
...... She glanced up at the sound of distant thunder. "So everyone marches on, until the Bazaar leadership says stop. No new location is given in advance. Nor is much warning ever given." She paused to laugh quickly. "And those two crazy customs keep all the marketplace storytellers in business!"
...... As part of one column of the Grand Bazaar, they traveled all day through a light drizzle, up over the first ridge, down through its valley beside a brook, over a shallow pass at its end, and into the next valley. That night was spent on a hillside, as a lampless, fireless bivouac beneath the dripping trees -- with food, water, packhorse fodder, and all other amenities carefully rationed.
In a perfectly executed maneuver, the eleven ships crested the ridge, sailed down the hillside to the center of the valley, and took up preplanned positions in a rough circle, quickly furling all their sails.
...... "We've got them this time," Merc confidently announced, as he paced the quarterdeck of his flagship. "We'll take care of the Grand Bazaar permanently."
...... On each of the ships, heavy rope nets were tied to the siderail posts and thrown overboard, to dangle at the level of the uppermost tree limbs. Dozens of men from each ship, armed with swords and spears, scrambled down the nets and vanished into the treetops. Other crewmembers unreeled thick docking cables from the bows and sterns of the vessels.
...... "Perhaps, it was not wise to leave the other half of the fleet at the bridge," Igthorus suggested. He clung with both hands to a backstay, while looking over the railing at the dense foliage below the hull. "It might have been more suitable to ignore the pirate and concentrate on this stratagem alone."
...... Merc waved it away with a brusque gesture. "That pirate was sighted on the other side of the river, and the way this fleet has been doing, I cannot risk losing even the smallest chance of catching him, when he tries to cross at the bridge. If my captains don't seize that man, at least they'll see to it that his ship can't cross to this side." He stumbled slightly on the rain-slick deck, when the ship, pushed by the wind, snubbed up against its docking cable. "I don't know that Gonzalis-Hiptmann was coming here to try to interfere with my attack on the Bazaar, but I'm seeing that he has no chance to!"
...... For several minutes, there was nothing to see except the wind driven, rhythmic swaying of the tree limbs -- and nothing to hear but indistinct shouts and the continuous crash of shattered vegetation. The slow rain pattered down, oblivious.
...... Merc turned to gesture. "What's taking those people so long down there?" He paced along the rough timbers, his hands clasped behind his back.
...... "It does sound somewhat quiet for a desperate battle with dangerous outlaws," Igthorus agreed. He moved away from the railing to sit on the roof corner of the low deckhouse, reaching up to hold onto a rope for security. "Perhaps everyone down there has decided to surrender," he dryly added.
...... After a few more quiet minutes, several crewmen reappeared above the foliage, clinging tightly to the nets. "There's nothing down here," one of the men shouted up to the flagship. He held on with one hand and motioned toward the tree limbs at his feet.
...... "What?" Merc stomped to the railing to lean over and point at a crewman. "You there. Report! What do you mean?"
...... "There's nobody down there except us," the man repeated loudly, clinging precariously to the net. "No tents or anything. Nothing at all. Nobody." He shoved his sword sheath out of his way, bouncing on the thick net strands. "There's nothing there, but a load of campfire ashes, a lot of broken branches, and a couple piles of scrap. The grass is all trampled down, but nobody's there." He looked dubiously downward. "We can haul up the scrap, if you want it."
...... "That's impossible!" Merc glared out across the treetops, looked around his mostly empty deck, scowled down at the crewmen on the net, then turned away. "The Bazaar has to be there," he declared to Igthorus. "It can't be anywhere else!"
...... "Perhaps, the Grand Bazaar has moved to a new location," Igthorus quietly suggested. "There are so many gossips and rumor-sellers around, that perhaps those people found out about your secret scheme and took suitable precautions." Standing, he gestured toward the bow of the ship. "And while you are there idling, perhaps you would care to examine the horizon. Please note the small ship, just on the crest of yonder ridge."
...... Merc wheeled, then jumped onto the railing, grabbing at one of the lines for support. "No. Him! That pirate. Gonzalis- Hiptmann! It can't possibly be."
...... Igthorus merely sat down again to sniff and rub his nose.
|chapter eleven||CHAPTER TWELVE||chapter thirteen|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)