Chapter One
Sea of Trees

... AFTER OPERATIVE SELECTION AND ...

...... His sodden boots squeaked with each long stride on the muddy trail which meandered between the tree trunks. He brushed again at his rough-cut black hair, and the lukewarm rainwater, which squeegeed out, trickled down the back of his neck and ran in under the collar of his coat. His leather shirt and pants were soaked to capacity from the constant trickle of water which dripped from the leaves overhead.
...... He jerked the long half-tanned leather lead, which he held clenched in his left hand, and the black stallion behind him tossed its head, jerking back. Its hooves squelched on the soaked earth, and the ropes, which held the tradegoods in place, squawked in matching rhythm.
...... "Seeming to talk to myself is the only good I'm getting out of this idiotic trek from nothing to nowhere," Justin complained in his rough baritone voice. He kicked a stone off the path. "At least, I can grumble all I want without anyone answering me, telling me all the advantages of this place, how good this mess is for my health and education, what a grand opportunity this is." He jerked hard on the lead. "Silence may not be golden, but right now, it is soothing." He glared at the stray bits of light which somehow had managed to penetrate the leafy branches. "As much as there is any advantage whatsoever in wandering through this unending mass of trees."
...... Stopping at a half-submerged junction in the trail, he brushed another time at the water droplets in his hair and glared up at the opaque canopy of green foliage overhead. Thick green vines climbed the tree trunks and wove the branches into a net without visible openings. Only the continuous dripping of warm rainwater indicated the storm squall above.
...... The horse's head pushed squarely into the center of his spine, and he shoved back, landing one boot in three inches of mud. He sighed theatrically and pulled his foot loose.
...... "There's supposed to be some sort of village ahead, but you'd never believe it from the looks of this trail." He waved one hand in an extravagant gesture. "I guess it's the left fork. But if it's not, it'll be another of those unexpected detours which I've begun to take as expected on this task." Starting forward again, he jerked hard on the lead and heard the squelching hoofbeats begin.
...... The one-man-wide trail fed into a sort of partial clearing -- an area in which several stubby burnt stumps showed where trees had once stood. A few low bushes struggled against the lack of light and the indifference of the villagers, and small patches of grass contended with the mud and standing water.
...... Two dozen tiny houses had been built between -- and often around -- the tree trunks. The ragged boards of their roofs didn't look much more rain shedding than the still continuous cover of tree leaves above them. The crooked, resin-sweating planks of the house walls were so ill-fit as to be of little use against the gusts of lukewarm wind. Heavy home-spun fabric in dull colors had been sewn into curtains to act as doors.
...... Somewhere nearby, the neighing of a horse revealed the presence of a stable. Somewhere also, a goat was protesting its lot in life. A gust of wind knocked loose a shower of droplets, which pattered on the rooftops and trickled into the tiny brooks which seemed to run beside each house.
...... A hotspring, as was very common in the area, bubbled up in a corner of the alleged village square, overflowing and leaking from its crude stone guttering. It flowed in its own narrow, steaming cutting into the coldwater brook which ran diagonally across the center street.
...... Beyond the hotspring, built around four tree trunks, a cage had been assembled out of rough timbers, ropes, and wooden pegs. Inside the cage, huddled together and sheltering as best they could from the rain, was a small group of rag-clad captives, mostly children and women -- obviously the booty of some foray against a neighboring town.
...... "Probably no worse off here, than where they were before," Justin muttered, as he stopped for a moment in the middle of the square to look at them. Turning away, he surveyed the squalid habitation. "A picture right out of Better Huts and Hovels ," he decided, then quickly glanced back at the cage.
...... One captive had attracted his interest. She was outside the cage, sitting in the mud, her wrists tied with rough, poorly tanned leather thongs to a corner post. She looked over at him -- curious and defiant blue-green eyes, long tangled ash-blonde hair plastered to her back, well-kept dark leather clothes. After a moment, she disdainfully looked away.
...... "Justin Morgan, pariah first class," he murmured, shrugging. He jerked on the lead and sauntered down the clearing, stepping over the small brook at a narrow place.
...... "Hey you! BlackRider. What do you want here? Move on!" The burly man stepped out of the doorway of one shack, the doorcurtain still swinging behind him. He waved a heavy hand. His other hand dropped to rest on the hilt of the large hunting knife which was tucked into his raw leather belt.
...... "I'm looking for work," Justin answered after a long minute. "I'm a weaponsmith. Anything you need repaired?" He thumbed over his shoulder at the loaded packs. "Also, I have bow strings, arrows, knives, hatchets. And two swords." Reaching over his shoulder, he loosened one of the weapons in its carved and decorated leather sheath, strapped to his back.
...... The man frowned uncomfortably, before taking his hand off of his knife. Behind him, the doorcurtain swayed slightly, and a small child peered out, her eyes bright and excited. Another gust of warm wind caused a splatter of rain to patter down on the roofs.
...... "There's nothing here for a damned BlackRider." He spat into the mud next to his stone doorstep. "Far away from your northern mountains, aren't you? Your tribe kick you out?"
...... "I'm on a religious duty," Justin replied in a dry tone. "Then you or your villagers have no work at all?"
...... "Our own blacksmith lives here." The man shook his head, saw the child, and waved her back inside. He gestured to the end of the square. "All we have is that bunch of useless prisoners, which nobody thinks worth ransoming, and a White Witch. You have any use for a witch? One gold piece, and she's yours."
...... "Hardly," Justin answered.
...... The clank of dropped crockery sounded from the neighboring house. Immediately, a goat dived past the doorcurtain, just ahead of a broom end.
...... The burly man shrugged. "Five silver pieces, then. A bargain."
...... "For whom?" Justin responded. He twisted suddenly.
...... Quickly, she looked away, into the dark emptiness of the forest -- a trim figure, dressed in mud-covered but well-made leathers, a classical and smudged face, her nearly white hair in sodden snarls, a piece of twig caught in a silken tangle, and those haunting blue-green eyes. Too proud to be caught staring like a provincial. Also, too proud to edge away from the mud puddle.
...... "Four silver pieces," the burly man continued. He encircled the tiny village in an expansive gesture. "Nobody here wants anything to do with a witch. Nobody can handle a witch." He shrugged again and offered a narrow smile. "Even the other prisoners don't want her around. They wouldn't let us keep her in the cage with them." After a few seconds, he suggested: "Three silver pieces."
...... The horse rammed Justin in the back again, and he jerked the lead once more. "Getting involved with the locals is strictly prohibited," he murmured, looking up at the thick wet branches overhead. "And I hardly need more freight. Particularly that kind of freight." He slowly looked around the shoddy village, glanced at the hotspring, then looked back at the captives. "Two silver!" he answered, pulling them from a slit pocket which had been sewn into his wide belt. He held up the hexagonal coins.
...... Nodding his agreement, the burly man caught the silver pieces as Justin tossed them. "But you go collect your purchase yourself."
...... "Undoubtedly," Justin allowed. He tightened his belt. "I expected nothing less."
...... Dropping the weighted end of the lead to the water-logged ground and pulling off his thin soggy gloves, Justin walked across the street, sloshed through the small brook, and stopped beside the captive. "You are coming with me," he stated.
...... She continued to stare into the forest, but she shifted position slightly.
...... He nodded and tightly grasped her arm. "You can understand me okay. You merely want to play silent." Drawing the slender knife from the twin loops in his belt, he carefully sliced through one turn of the leather thong and let it unwind itself. "That's all right, as far as I'm concerned. But you're still coming with me."
...... Dropping, she spun sideways in the mud, kicked his foot out from under him, and tried to slip past him, as he toppled into the puddle of dirty rainwater. Just as she gained her own footing on the slippery earth, he made a long reach and caught her ankle. She sprawled on the wet grass.
...... Skidding forward on the slimy bottom of the puddle, he dodged a second fast-moving boot, reached her hands, and wrapped the remaining length of thong around her wrists. Slowly standing, he dragged her upright.
...... "And this could have been so easy," he acidly complained, as he tried to brush the caked mud from his clothes, using only one hand.
...... The entire village population was at windows and doorways to watch the performance, as he half-dragged, half-shoved her across the brook to the packhorse. There were no sounds beyond those of the unhappy goat, but it was obvious from the rigid expressions on the faces of the villagers that they would burst into laughter the instant he was out of hearing range.
...... He pushed her onto the horse in front of the canvas-covered pack and wrapped two loops of the supporting rope around her, effectively adding her to the tradegoods. "I damn well hope you're satisfied!" he spat out, brushing wet dirt from his mouth. He picked up the lead and yanked hard on it.
...... Wiping muddy water away from his eyes with mud-stained hands, he started once more along the narrow trail through the trees.
...... The remainder of the day continued to drizzle uneventfully -- a continuous and yet permanent picture of treacherous mud, loose stones, low branches which wetly swatted his head, tree trunks, lengths of fallen vine which attacked his feet, small shrubs, and soggy grass which wiped itself on his pant legs.
...... Toward evening, as the gray gloom of the day altered perceptibly into the darker gray gloom of twilight, the trail turned rocky and wound downward, to circle a deep fast stream and a small gravel-bottomed pool which had formed in a rocky, fern bounded depression.
...... "Hey. There's even a sort of cave over there. Almost a Days Inn," he called over his shoulder. "Shelter from this godawful rain!"
...... There was no answer.
...... After letting out a deep breath, he shrugged. "I might as well be totally alone for all the entertaining conversation here!"
...... He waded into the pool, carefully feeling his footing, as he pulled the horse along behind. Finished sluicing the still-damp mud from himself and his clothes with the cool water, he loosened the supporting ropes, pulled her off to land in the shallow pool with a large splash and several rocking waves, and began tossing his heavily-wrapped bundles of tradegoods into the bushes beyond the fern beds at the edge.
...... Standing waist-deep in the cold water, after glaring at him for a moment, she rinsed off what mud she could reach with her tied hands, then splashed to a half-submerged boulder at the edge of the pond to sit shivering in the thin moist wind.
...... After completing the unloading, he glanced at her before beginning to scrub the horse. "We haven't been introduced properly, but I am Justin Morgan, from the north, on my way south. This beast doesn't have a name as far as I'm concerned."
...... There was no answer.
...... He scrubbed hard at the long black mane, then looked over at her again. "Why don't you shelter over there in the cave, out of the elements. We'll be staying here tonight. In a few minutes, I'll start a fire."
...... Sitting crosslegged on the rock, she continued to stare past him into the forest. He slapped the horse on the neck, turned, and took two steps, splashing through the pool. Immediately, she hopped up and climbed over the rocks to solid ground, heading toward the dubious shelter of the half-formed natural cave.
...... He finished the cleaning operation, slapped the horse's rump, and waded ashore to start a fire with damp wood and a bit of dry kindling. Putting a kettle of stew over the heat, he left to pile the tradegoods properly.
...... Returning, he dished the impromptu dinner into two big wooden bowls, placed one next to her, where she huddled against the back of the shelter, and sat down with his own meal at the mouth of the cave, just back from the heat of the fire. Tiny spits of rain fell hissing into the flames. Spooning sliced vegetables and meat broth, he stared morosely outside at the continuing slow drip from the glistening tree leaves. "Does it ever stop raining here?"
...... Silent and defiant, bound hands clasped in her lap, she stayed huddled against the jagged stone wall at the farthest part of the shallow cave, staring outward at the rain and ignoring the steaming bowl beside her.
...... "If it gives you some sort of moral victory to starve yourself, that's fine with me." He paused to chase a bit of meat with his spoon. "I should have left you with those villagers. You and they deserve each other."
...... "I would have escaped at dark," she replied suddenly in a slightly husky mezzosoprano voice.
...... "If they didn't use you for archery practice first," he countered. "That's what they were trying to work themselves up to." He waved his spoon in her direction. "Eat your dinner. I'm not any great cook, but it'll taste better than that leather thong you've been surreptitiously biting at all day."
...... She looked over to scowl at him, her lips twisted in sudden anger. Then she ostentatiously looked away.
...... Slowly shaking his head, he drank some of the broth. "Look! If you don't have something to eat, how do you intend to hit me over the head with a stone in the late watches of the night and run away? That kind of work takes nourishment. And that's obviously what you've been thinking about for most of today."
...... She murmured something beneath her breath, picked up the bowl, and wedged it between her drawn-up knees. Staring into it, she spooned the fragrantly steaming mixture into her mouth. "You're welcome," he softly laughed, quickly finishing his own meal and setting aside the empty dish. "It's just that it bothers me to watch you shivering."
...... For an hour, he read a book by the flickering firelight, then retrieved the dishes, washed them in the pool, and laid out two bedrolls -- one at the back of the cave and one at the front. He pulled her upright and dumped her on one pile of the thick, brightly colored, fine-woven blankets, then snuggled down in his own set at the front of the cave.
...... "It'll be uncomfortable to sleep with your hands tied," he remarked, pushing a roll of fabric into a pillow-shape. "But I don't want to wake up tomorrow morning with a severe headache. Good night!"
...... The tiny scuffling sounds woke him sometime in the middle of the night. The campfire had faded to bright red embers, and the rain had stopped. Rumbling in the background, the fast-moving stream flowed over and around its rocky bed.
...... Fast asleep, she was knotted up in her blankets and fighting desperately at the bindings which held her wrists. He stood for a moment, running his fingers through his hair, then went over and cut loose the thongs, staying to stroke her hair for a minute until she quieted.
...... Replenishing the fire with the damp fresh wood, which he'd stacked out of the rain beside the cave mouth, he pulled his blankets into a crude nest, leaned back against the rock wall, and picked up his book. Somewhere in the bushes, a nocturnal animal hunted its supper. A drift of smoke nosed into the cave and gusted out again, leaving only its oily scent.
...... He awoke, startled, in the morning -- wakened by the heat of the fire and the smell of hot bread. A damp mist swirled outside the cave, hiding the forest and the stream. The water's rumble was strangely muffled by the fog. His book lay open in his lap.
...... She sat on a narrow ledge of rock, leaning against the wall, nibbling on toasted bread. The motions of her wrinkled sleeves showed the raw sores from the bindings. At her feet the blankets were done up in a neat roll.
...... "Good morning." He closed his book and stood to stretch. "At least the rain has quit."
...... She nodded but kept her attention on her breakfast.
...... In the middle of his chores, he paused by the fire to cut a chunk of bread for his own breakfast. After rounding up the horse and loading the packs, he caught her arm and pulled her out of the cave, stopping to point at an object in a tree.
...... "Much as I love your company, we're parting in such sweet sorrow." He pointed to the heavy knapsack which hung by its belts from a branch, halfway up the large tree. "That's yours, and there's a knife inside also. However, by the time you retrieve it, I'll be well out of range." He yanked on the lead and, followed by the horse, walked away along the muddy trail into the mist.
...... "Goodbye and good luck," he called over his shoulder.

* * *

...... A whitewashed donkey cart, loaded with baskets of vegetables, creaked along the cobbled frontage of the lake. Both of its occupants huddled into their cloaks against the biting chill which blew off of the water. Seated uncomfortably on the righthand side of the bare plank bench, Igthorus looked up at the cleared farmland which followed the contour of the ridge from the lake's shoreline to the dressed-stone and crenelated fortifications at the top. Groups of tiny bent figures were working in the fields, using small hand tools.
...... "It looks like a good harvest this year," Igthorus mentioned to the driver, as he evaluated the low-lying greenery. "Perhaps another field or two needs to be cleared in the coming summer."
...... "Anything'd be better than last year," the old man answered, intent on the reins in his hands. "Certainly we need more cleared land, but with everybody assigned to shipbuilding and weapons making and the docks and the warehouses, who's left to do the farming? Just people like me and you. Everybody else is going to make their fortune in trade these days, but who's going to grow something to trade with?" He shook his head. "Then there's these Outlaws hiding below the trees and doing all kinds of mischief. And lately, these mysterious DawnWriters who want to go back to the old days before the ships. I've told you before, it's getting to be a scrap-iron world!"
...... The cart halted in front of a circular building -- a stone-lined pit, which was protected from the rain by a heavy roof set on thick timber beams.
...... "I can wait for you," the old man offered.
...... Waving his hand, Igthorus climbed down from his seat. "You have things to do, and I can walk back. Besides, walking, I can look at the condition of the wharf at the same time." He gestured farewell, and the cart slowly moved away to the clopping of the donkey's hooves.
...... Staring out past the granary's windmill on the rocks of the point, he scanned the opposite shoreline and the hills beyond the choppy waves of the lake. The mist was clearing away, rising waves of it driven by the wind, but no ships were in sight over the sequence of ridges -- just the lines of the low mountains becoming grayly indistinct as the distance increased, until they seemed to merge into the gray sky itself.
...... Igthorus stopped at the top of the stone stairs and sighed deeply at the fifty-odd uneven steps down to water level. Above him, a workman on the roof, which protected the equipment in the pit, hammered away at new wooden shakes. The man's cloak was bound tightly around him with thin rope, but the edges continued to flap in the breeze. A second workperson appeared over the point of the roof, carrying a strapped mass of newly cut shakes on his or her shoulder -- the never-ending maintenance of wood structures continually exposed to alternations in dryness and wet beneath the perpetual grayness of the sky.
...... Unable to find any good excuse otherwise, Igthorus eased his way down the stairs, favoring his lame leg. He reached the bottom, paused for a long breath, ducked around the pulley of a large crane, and stopped at the edge of the circular water-filled depression which took up most of the floor.
...... "Progress has been made, I see," he remarked to the test chamber's supervisor, who stood at an index mark which had been chiseled into the stone.
...... "Some," the woman acknowledged, then laughed. "Merc's got termites in his pants, as usual?" Her shadow was sharply outlined on the floor by the chandelier of Everlast candles which hung from a pulley, mounted on the lowest beam of the roof. The shadow moved slightly, as the chandelier swung with the press of the wind.
...... "Lord Mercadoratius is always in a hurry," Igthorus allowed with a friendly smile.
...... "Well, the Witch has approved the crystal," the supervisor listed. She tugged her kerchief tighter against the chill in the air. "It's been mounted in the cradle, as you can see. She also activated it fully. We're just finishing the rotation test, and, if that's right, we'll do the torque test. Then the thing can be hoisted back out of here and into the ship." She waved a hand upward. "If a ship can be towed to my wharf here in the next few hours."
...... In the circular pool floated a circular raft, assembled of thick, algae-covered timbers. The edge of the raft came within a few inches of the coping of the pool, its massive wood structure kept in alignment by an equally massive central pivot which protruded up out of the exact center of the water. Mounted on horizontal pivots of its own, stretching across the diameter of the raft, a cage-like timber framework held a Repeller Stone in place.
...... One workperson, boots braced on the timbers of the raft, cranked industriously at a handle -- slowly rotating, by means of a group of pulleys, the glistening black crystal in its horizontal framework. As the crystal rotated, the raft itself was driven around its own central pivot.
...... "And I for one will be glad to see it out of here," she suddenly said. "I don't like being around these things. There's something odd about them, something alien." She turned away for a moment. "By the way, any news of that white-haired urchin Merc is so upset over?"
...... Accompanied by a wind gust, a burst of rain rattled on the shakes of the roof. Wind-driven spray showered in under the roof support timbers and scattered along the walkway around the pool.
...... "I have similar feelings about those Repeller Stones," Igthorus agreed. He wrapped his cloak tighter and adjusted its belt. "They give me a sense of foreboding," he offered, then dismissed it with a brushing gesture. "Misty Tallpinin is nowhere to be found. But enough people are certainly trying. That half a silver bar reward has seen to that!"
...... "Twenty gold pieces is a very flattering sum for any woman. But she'll stay lost, if she has any sense," the supervisor commented, as she watched the index mark on the raft slowly meet the mark on the coping. "Right now," she shouted to her assistants.
...... The young man stopped turning the handcrank and squatted down to check the marks on the end of the timber framework. "Six and a quarter rotations of the stone for one full turn of the raft," the man shouted back.
...... Rainwater began trickling down a section of the wall, forming a shallow broad stream on the walkway, and flowing over the coping into the pool through the narrow gap left by the raft.
...... "That's the normal value for ship stones," the supervisor stated. She raised her voice. "Prepare the pulley weights for the torque test."
...... As the workcrew ran for a different group of ropes and pulleys, Igthorus turned back to the staircase. "Then I shall leave you to your work. If you need the ship immediately, I'll see that it's tied up at your wharf within two hours." He stopped on the bottom stair to look up at the flight of steps.
...... "You needn't have come down here," the woman offered. "You could have signaled." She motioned to the sheaf of tiny pulleys and cords mounted on the stone wall. "Or, if you'd called down from the railing up there, I would've been glad to have come upstairs."
...... "Thank you. I know. But my leg needs its exercise," Igthorus replied. "Besides, coming here is an opportunity to leave the office. Something to be valued anytime Merc is in port."
......


prologue CHAPTER ONE chapter two

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PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)

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