"Stand still, you dumb nag," he demanded. "If you can't do anything else, you can at least make like a merry-go-round beast."
...... Justin braced the field glasses against the pack and tried to locate the trail he'd just come up. It was hidden completely by the trees.
...... Standing on a bare rock outcropping at the top of the ridge -- one of the few places which allowed a view over low shrubs and between sparse stunted trees -- he focused the binoculars on the mist-shrouded and tree-covered hills, which stood in sea-like waves, until they faded into the horizon beneath the eternal gray clouds. Only a slightly brighter section of cloud cover suggested the presence of a sun. A few dribbles of rain sprinkled down.
...... "This place could be completely uninhabited, for all I can see," he remarked, putting the glasses away. "But it does appear to be the correct route. As well as I can tell," he added, jerking hard on the lead.
...... The horse shifted sideways, knocking him down. He rolled his eyes to look at the grayness overhead, muttered something about patience, and picked himself back up.
...... "There is one local custom I like," he stated, brushing dead leaves and dirt from his pants. "These people work a domestic animal until it's useless. Then barbecue it!" He reached for the lead again. "I think I could develop a liking for a good sirloin horse steak. Or maybe horse-burger!"
...... Stumbling slightly as he crossed the small patch of rocky outcropping, he hiked down the opposite side of the ridge, through its thick forest, finding and following an unmarked and barely discernible trail among the tree trunks. Striding alongside a briskly flowing stream, he reached an obvious ford -- stone-filled and treacherous.
...... "It isn't going to get any better," he commented, yanking the lead.
...... Followed by the packhorse, he crossed the strong current by moving from rock to slippery rock over the uncertain footing. Dead leaves and pine needles sprinkled down from the waving branches above.
...... Dripping water from his already saturated clothes, he started again through the unending woods, traveling on the trampled weeds until the trail forked. Picking the uphill side, he climbed the steep slope of the next ridge, crested it, and hiked down the other side.
...... The forest was darkening with the coming of night, when he almost lost his footing on lukewarm mud.
...... "Now wouldn't that be just perfectly convenient?" he quietly remarked, stopping long enough to wring some of the wetness out of his sleeves. "At least I could use a hot bath!"
...... Fifty meters upstream of the slowly moving brook of mud, was a clear pool formed by the seepage of a hotsprings. The water steamed in the evening air. Slightly uphill from the pool, on the dry earth beneath a stone overhang which had been carved out eons ago by flowing water, he made his camp. He stacked the dry dead branches, which had accumulated there, for fire kindling, strung a lightweight tarp from a piece of rope to act as a one-wall windbreak, unloaded the bulky tradegoods, and turned the horse out to graze on what little sparse vegetation grew beneath the trees.
...... After spreading his clothes over bushes to drip, if not dry, he eased into the warm pool, sighed deeply, and stretched out comfortably on the sandy bottom in the shallows.
...... The neighing of the horse interrupted his luxuriant soak. Slipping out of the pool and moving carefully through the shrubbery in the darkness, he maneuvered around to come up from behind on his own camp.
...... Without warning, he bumped into someone. Reaching out in his own defense, he captured a small trim body -- complete with a mop of ash-blonde hair and a large, very active sack which squawked with the impact. After a snort of disgust, he dropped both and stepped back.
...... "Just what do you think you're doing here?" he angrily demanded.
...... "Following you." Slowly, she stood, dusted herself off, and scooped up the brown homespun bag, which was inching its way into the bushes. "Not on purpose, but we both seem to be traveling in roughly the same direction. Since you bought dinner last time, I thought I'd repay that debt."
...... He ran his hand over his head, producing a small river of cool water down his chest. "I don't want you around here."
...... "What you want, and what you get," she coolly replied with a fast motion of her free hand, "are two entirely different, completely unrelated aspects." Tossing the squawking bag back over her shoulder, she theatrically sniffed. "Tonight is formal. So please dress for dinner!"
...... Kicking clumps of wet shrubbery out of his way, he stomped back toward the hotsprings to regain his clothes, while her wolf whistle echoed in the confining forest.
...... The chickens were roasting on greenwood spits over the fire, by the time he'd dressed and stamped back to his own campsite. With obvious reluctance he seated himself on a flat rock next to the heat of the flames.
...... She continued to busy herself with the kettle and other utensils which she'd taken from his pack, stirring a thick vegetable stew and turning the spits. Finally he inquired: "Where did you get them?"
...... "Stole them." Without looking up, she poured cider from a skin bag into two mugs. "I thought I'd conform to the local customs. The prior owner of these chickens can go steal something from the villagers who stole my belongings." She handed him one mug, scooped the corn and bean mixture from the kettle into two bowls, and handed him one.
...... Silently, he slowly stirred the concoction with a large wooden spoon. "Just what do you want?" he finally asked.
...... She swallowed a mouthful of the concoction and quickly wiped the bottom of her chin. "Since we are traveling in the same direction on the same trails, it seems pretty idiotic to keep two hundred meters away and to set up separate camps fifty paces from each other." She paused to turn the chickens again and sip at the cider. "So I decided that we'll travel together and watch each other's back." She glanced at him for the first time. "It's safer that way."
...... "I don't want outriders," Justin stated flatly.
...... She looked across the fire at him for a long moment. "Need I repeat myself? Besides, somewhere along the trip, I'm sure I can trade some of my time to other travelers for enough to pay you for the belongings you gave me." Picking up the knife, she paused to motion at him with it, her tangled hair swinging in counterpoint. "And don't misinterpret that." She sliced into one chicken, watched the juice drip into the fire, and shrugged. "A bit longer, I think. For your general information, I have professional skills as good or better than yours."
...... "That wouldn't take much!" He looked into his bowl of vegetarian stew and stirred it with the spoon. "I suppose you might as well tag along."
...... "Your enthusiastic and courteous acceptance of my invitation," she answered with another wave of the knife, "is about what I expect!" She turned the spits again, then sliced into another of the chickens.
Waking in the dim gray gloom of local daybreak, he stared for a moment at the neatly-rolled bedroll which was pushed against the canvas windbreak on the other side of the campfire ashes. He tossed his blankets out of the way, gathered up a small tray-full of miscellaneous items from a bundle which he had taken from one of his packs, and strolled toward the undergrowth which concealed the pool.
...... She was kneeling on the loose stones at the edge of the water, her long hair tossed up over her head, trying unsuccessfully to force a comb through the locks while keeping her balance on the precarious footing. Careful to move quietly, he strolled up behind her -- and with one foot shoved her into the pool.
...... She floundered to the surface and stood up, waving a clenched fist. "You ape. You donkey. You fertilizer carrier. You cretin. You two-legged dust mite. You oversized gnat. You ill-favored ugly overegoed male son-of-a-magpie!" Her hair hung in drenched loops across her face. She switched hands to wave the comb at him. "You ever do that again, and I will kill you. I will!" Shoving the heavy strands back behind her shoulders, she angrily whipped down her hands. "I almost had my hair dry before you dunked me!"
...... Moving slowly, he waded into the pool and gestured for her to turn around. Angry and wary, water dripping from her bangs, she folded her arms and glared at him.
...... Shrugging, he stepped around behind her, and she twisted her neck to watch. Leaving the small wooden tray to bob on the tiny ripples of the pool while he rubbed suds from the soap bar, he caught her head and pushed it straight. When she twisted back, he dabbed a small mound of suds on her nose.
...... Her face wrinkled up, and she turned sideways to sneeze. By the time she'd recovered, he had her head held straight again and was working thick suds into the tangles. Still wary, she stood quietly.
...... "Just where are you going?" he asked conversationally, as he tried to tease loose the ends of the tangled strands.
...... "To Center, to the Temple," she allowed in a low voice, still full of suspicion. "Where are you going?"
...... "Southward, more or less. Where is Center?"
...... She glanced over her shoulder. "Center is the city in the middle of the Province, the land we live in here. I'm going to the Temple, where the Guild of the White Witches is. Why are you going southward?"
...... "I'm looking for a lost object of my people." Using the end of a comb, he worked at a thick snarl. "How did you get captured?"
...... "That's a long story," she sighed, relaxing slightly. "I thought that the BlackRiders were a bunch of illiterate nomads who herded horses in the Rock Mountains and farther north. Who sent you this way? Your tribal leader?"
...... "You're pretty much correct, but we're not all uneducated. Just most of us." He grimaced, as he continued to work at a persistent knot, stopping only to make a long reach before the tray drifted away. "It wasn't a leader who sent me. More like a bureaucrat."
...... "A what? Is that like a mystic?"
...... "More like a four-legged unfrocked witch doctor, whose soul is as black as the horse hide he wears." He motioned with the comb. "Since we're both going to be here for quite a while, you might as well tell me your long story. It'll pass the time."
...... She started to turn, then stopped and gestured with one hand palm up. "I took a passage on a trading ship. But it was attacked. I ducked out over the side, sliding down a rope, and escaped into the forest without anyone seeing me. The rest was only bad luck."
...... "Those tree-floating ships are interesting. How do they work?"
...... "They have a Repeller Stone mounted in the hold. The stone is repelled by the trees and other plants, and holds up the ship."
...... He finished coaxing loose the worst snarl and started on another. "Are there pirates? And it looked like you ran into worse difficulties on the ground."
...... "Only one or two," she allowed, gesturing with her own comb which she still held loosely in one hand. "It was only bad luck." She combed at her bangs twice, then gave up. "I was going down one trail and literally ran right into a raiding party which was bringing back captives. Otherwise, I would have slipped by them through the trees. Right then, I didn't have a chance to get away." She was silent for a minute, moving the comb between her hands. "My ship wasn't attacked by pirates. It was overhauled by some people who were sent to drag me back home."
...... "They sure failed in that." He splashed warm water to rinse the soap away, pulled the small tray closer once more, and tried combing again. The comb snarled immediately. "They must have been very anxious to find you," he idly remarked, reaching for a tiny container of oil.
...... "They certainly were. And I wish I knew why." She shifted position slightly, sending circular wavelets to slap at the stones. "But I'm not going back home. As far as I'm concerned, that's over with." Her hand whipped the comb in a cutting gesture. "I'm on my own from now on."
...... He carefully worked the perfumed oil into the mass of her hair. Gradually, the strands relaxed enough to allow him to work the comb through. "And you're going to Center, to the Temple," he repeated.
...... "I'm going to Center and jump all over the Council," she snapped. "The Council is the group who govern the Province and make all the laws. And they're supposed to enforce them, too. And I need to jump all over those cows in the Temple too. They had no right!"
...... "To do what?" Carefully, he combed the last of the snarls out. Drops of excess oil ran down the comb to land as silvery circles in the water.
...... She was silent for a long minute, before continuing in a quiet voice. "To betroth me to Lord Mercadoratius, the SeaLord! That's not done any more." She shook slightly, her voice hardening. "I am not property to be bought, sold, or traded. And I certainly am not going to have anything to do with that . . . that . . . never mind!"
...... A flurry of droplets fell from the overhead branches. Justin paused to wave the comb upward before continuing work. "Doesn't it ever stop raining here?"
...... She allowed a two seconds giggle. "Don't worry. This is just the last few days of the winter rainy season."
...... "Thanks for that!"
...... "By next week, the spring thunderstorms'll be starting," she laughed.
...... He paused long enough to let out a deep breath, then started combing again. "But there's usually a few days to let things dry out," she offered. "They say it's very dry up where you live."
...... "Rocks and brush, no trees and not many springs, all of them cold," he admitted. "Okay, the snarls are gone." He had combed most of the water out of her hair. "It can dry on the road . . . if the rain lets it." Retrieving the floating tray and splashing out of the pool, he added: "Time for us to hit the trail or whatever that vague rut is."
She stopped, one hand braced against a water-logged tree trunk, to pull at the top of her boot. Water dripped from the leaves above and ran in a tiny stream down her arm to form a puddle at the base of the tree.
...... "How far have we come?" she asked, pushing the boot top straight. Her pant leg tipped up, and she flicked it down again. "It must be about middleday." Straightening, she shoved at her hair as it flowed past her shoulder.
...... "Six or seven miles," Justin estimated. He shook his head at one drip, moved out of the way, only to halt beneath another. "It was a late start, this morning." She closed her eyes for a brief moment.
...... "How do you tell when the rain does stop?" he demanded peevishly. He waved upward. "The trees just keep dripping."
...... "You have to be out on the farmland to tell." Shoulders slumped and eyes down, she started forward again, picking her way along a muddy depression in the trail. "Except when there's thunderstorms."
...... With another scowl at the thick foliage, he yanked on the lead and followed. "There is farmland?"
...... "Of course. Everybody has to eat something." She straightened to shove again at her hair, pushing it back behind her shoulders. "Maybe you people survive on horsemeat, but I much prefer vegetables and flour. And the occasional egg."
...... "Plus the occasional chicken," he added.
...... "Only when they stop with the eggs. Every Estate here, including my parent's lands, is a farm. Look, the Province is a circle, with the center at Center." She waved a finger in the air. "It's divided into four Estates, Samstrx in the southwest, Quardain in the southeast, Mercadoratius in the northwest, and Tallpinin in the northeast. We're just inside the border of Tallpinin right now. Each Estate has a couple hundred villages scattered around the land. Each village is the center of a cleared farmland area. Tenants farm the land and hunt a little and make a few things. They also keep chickens . . . and quail and bushbirds and rabbits." She stumbled slightly. Her hair swirled past her shoulder again, and again she briskly shoved it back out of the way. "In our land here, the raising of horses is a specialty practiced only by the lords. They mostly are hunters too. But some of the domestic animals and a few of the horses seem to have gotten loose into the forest . . . or were stolen. Now there are wild bands, and those are the horses the Underworld people use as pack animals."
...... He hopped over a tiny brook which bubbled its way through the trees. "And just who are these Underworld people?"
...... "All the people around us." She again raised a forefinger and gestured a small horizontal circle. "Everyone who lives in the trees . . . under the tree foliage. Most of these people are criminals who escaped from the Lords, or tenants who couldn't stand their lives any longer. That's why they're called Outlaws. Some of them must have lived here for generations." She paused for a moment. "I never realized that there were so many of these villages hidden under our trees. Or such a network of roads."
...... "If you want to call these slime beds roads. Don't those overlords object? About all these people living here. No one could collect taxes in this wilderness." He slipped sideways, caught himself, and shook the mud from his boot sole.
...... "There's a kind of war going on between the Underworld and the Estates." She paused, as she climbed over a half-exposed rock slab. "When the SeaLords can locate a village, they'll bring over a ship and stage a raid. That's not too often, because it's so hard to find a village built under the trees the way these are."
...... "It sounds rather one-sided." He looked upward at the slight increase in light brightness. The tree branches were thinner, showing slits of gray sky between the masses of leaves. "I think we're at the top of this ridge. The going will be easier for a while now."
...... "Don't you believe that. About it being one-sided," she retorted. "The Underworlders set traps for the ships and pillage the wreckage. That's where most of their manufactured articles come from. If they'd quit attacking ships that way, my people would probably leave them alone." She paused, then added, "At least I was told that was where all their manufactured articles came from. But now that I see how many Outlaws there are, that can't possibly be true."
...... An hour later, while they stopped for a rest on a leaf strewn outcropping, she tried to braid her hair. Finishing the task for her, he tied the single thick braid with two scraps of finely-woven fabric pulled from the tradegoods bundle.
...... "I haven't worn it this way since I was a little girl," she laughed, pulling the braid forward over her shoulder. She sighed, gingerly stood up, and started down the trail, motioning with one hand.
...... "It's very becoming, Little One," he called, snatching up the lead and following.
...... Down the twists of the muddy path, jumping the small brooks which crisscrossed it, tramping alongside the foaming stream in the tiny valley until they found a narrows, splashing from handhold to handhold across the ford, following the stream until the raw mud indicated another trail, up the twists of that muddy thoroughfare. Another crest of another ridge.
...... "I think it just might have stopped raining," Justin suggested as he stared upward at the thin foliage.
...... "Wait two minutes," she growled as she trudged along the pathway. She didn't look up.
...... In the narrow valley at the foot of that ridge, built among the trees on both sides of the splashing brook, was another small village of crudely assembled huts. A freshly cut, three-log-wide bridge, wrapped with overly large and heavily tarred rope, spanned the waterway. Beyond the bridge, spread out on a length of homespun in front of a larger than usual hovel, were various goods obviously for trade.
...... "Thank god for garage sales," Justin murmured as he carefully maneuvered the horse across the narrow unsteady bridge.
...... Shoulders drooping, she turned to look at him, her head tilted. She simply shrugged and turned back to examine the items set out on display for potential customers -- food, baskets, handmade household utensils, some heavier blacksmith articles, and a few pieces of finely-crafted jewelry. A middle aged woman, still adjusting a greasy shawl over her hair, slipped past the door curtain of the hut and silently stood on the stone-flagged porch.
...... While Justin negotiated for more supplies, his companion went to sit on the end of the bridge and stare at the mud on her boots, her hands limply clasped in her lap. Within a few minutes, the sale completed, he stopped next to her. She tried a smile, gave it up as a lost cause, and heaved herself upright. They left the small village behind, their traveling supplies refilled.
...... At the crest of the next ridge, he halted and ordered: "Stop a minute." Standing behind her, he looped a hand-beat clasp around the end of her braid.
...... "It's gorgeous." She moved her forefinger along its elaborate engraving. "But I can't accept it."
...... He glanced up at the still dripping branches, then back down. "Why can't you accept it?" he requested in a mild tone.
...... She shrugged lightly. "I can't go around accepting expensive gifts from perfect strangers."
...... "Number one, I'm far from perfect," he retorted, gesturing upward. "Number two, I certainly can't wear something like that effectively. My hair's far too short." He swung the end of the lead in a short circle. "But if you're too stiffnecked . . . ."
...... "Wouldn't you be?" she demanded, life back in her voice.
...... "Yes," he tossed back. "But I thought women were more sensible."
...... "What can I answer to that?" She moved to a fallen tree trunk and sat down to tug on the end of her braid. "We need to put this trip on a more businesslike basis. You paid for all the supplies."
...... "You do half the chores." He dropped the lead and perched on a rock a few feet away. "What else is there?"
...... She shook her head. "That's not enough."
...... He motioned outward before placing both hands on his knees. "So call it a loan. You can pay me back when you reach home or wherever."
...... She again shook her head. "I don't have any collateral."
...... "So what am I suppose to do?" he demanded, turning to scowl at the grazing horse. "Phone Dunn And Bradstreet?"
...... She straightened and tilted her head. "What? What's that?"
...... "Never mind," he answered, turning back. "Please keep the trinket, Little One. It's been years since I've had the opportunity to decorate a beautiful woman."
...... "Be serious!" she demanded, standing, one hand on her hip.
...... "I am." He waved that away. "Okay. I bought you, and you're my slave. Therefore, I have to maintain my investment. You're your own collateral. You can buy yourself out whenever."
...... "I'm owned by nobody!" she yelped, stamping one boot. She hit the edge of a puddle and slopped mud across her other boot. "Dammit!" She plopped back on the tree trunk, crossing her arms.
...... "So what do you want me to do?" he demanded. "Marry you? Okay!" He looked around aimlessly, then scowled at the leaves overhead once more. "Later, you can divorce me. Mental cruelty."
...... She loudly snorted and flipped one hand. "That could have possibilities, but you're trying to be humorous. And not very successfully." Stopping to shake her muddied boot, she added: "I'm serious about this."
...... "Yes. Okay. I got that impression." He paused to scratch his head for a minute. "Look. Among my people, teachers are paid for teaching. You teach me about this world, and I'll buy the food and so on in exchange." He stood to pace two yards. "I don't want you going out on any more hunting forays. I don't want to start up a group of vigilantes."
...... She thought for a moment, tugging at her braid. "At that exchange rate, I'll have to teach for at least five hours a day. Do you think you can ask enough questions to accomplish that?"
...... "No problem! Considering the alternatives," he said, striding back to where the horse was grazing, "that'll be no problem at all."
...... Another endlessly twisting trail among and beneath the trees. "Just how far away is this Temple of yours?" he inquired, sloshing through a puddle formed behind a fallen branch.
...... "Too far to walk," she replied from several yards ahead. "Is this one of the school lessons?"
...... "Might as well be." He paused, apparently to consider more questions.
They stopped in a nominal clearing, where the tree trunks were a little less numerous, before the twilight had entirely vanished. He had the horse unloaded and turned out to graze, a fire started, and the camp set up within half an hour. As the very last of the daylight vanished from those few gaps in the treetops, a heavy rain started to come down.
...... He looked upward. "Oh, damn!"
...... Unrolling two tarpaulins and a triangular scrap of heavy fabric, he strung a small awning for the fire and two pup tents on ropes tied between tree trunks. Shrugging at his own workmanship, he turned away to begin his search for any bits of relatively dry firewood.
...... Lugging a big container of water, she was walking back, as he hurried away. "I'm going to scrounge up some more wood, if I can find any," he offered on his way by. "If you'll watch dinner?" He vanished into the darkness.
...... By the time he returned to dump broken tree branches beside the fire which had been driven low by rain hissing in under the awning, she was nowhere in sight. However, the stew kettle was swaying over the small flames, and the two tiny pup tents had been dismantled and combined into one large tent.
...... Moving the bed rolls, he quickly restrung the tarpaulins back into two tiny tents and left for another load of wood.
...... Returning with the second cumbersome load, he found that the two tents again had been reformed into one. This time, her clothes were inside to dry, hanging down from the central support rope, and she was snuggled under her blankets, eating stew from a large wood bowl.
...... Ignoring the pelting rain, he stopped in front of the tent. "You have to be the most obstinate person . . . make that second most obstinate person . . . I have ever met, Little One!"
...... She didn't bother to look up. "And you're a novelty to me, also. It's the first time I've seen a packhorse being led by a jackass." She motioned with the spoon. "Get your dinner from the fire, and go to bed. I'm too tired tonight to enjoy an argument."
...... "Okay. You win, Little One." He scooped part of the kettle's contents into a bowl.
...... "And stop calling me that!" she yelled.
...... "Then what should I use?" he yelled back. "I don't know your name."
...... "You never asked!" she retorted, just as loud.
...... "You never volunteered," he countered, walking back. "And I didn't want to press the matter. That's your own concern."
...... She pushed the empty dish out of the way and laid her head down. "I am Lady Michelle Tallpinin."
...... He sat down at the edge of his blankets and stirred the bowl's contents. "So. It's Misty! It fits you. Can I call you that?"
...... She permitted a tiny tired laugh. "Okay."
...... In the middle of the night, long after the fire had died, he woke to hear her crying in her sleep. Wrapping one blanket around himself, he ducked under the drying clothes, sat down next to her, and stroked her hair. After a few moments, she quieted.
...... Ducking outside into the fine spray of light rain, he persuaded the fire into life again, added the necessary new wood, then quietly returned to his own blankets.
|chapter one||CHAPTER TWO||chapter three|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)