Chapter Five
Sea of Trees


...... Xyly opened the plain wood chest on the floor of her tiny ship's cabin, sorted through the haphazard stacks of paper, and withdrew the letter. Shuffling past the narrow, neatly made bed to sit on a small bench at her tiny sanded-plank work table, she stroked the Everlast Candle, which was set into the corner of the table, to medium brilliance. Its thin white flame swayed to the slight motion of the moving ship.
...... Carefully, she unfolded the letter and read it again, her fingers idly tapping the table's worn surface. Bits of ink-coated sand, left over from the drying process, dropped down to stick on the tabletop amid other similar stains.
...... Finished, she looked up to stare absently at the unadorned bulkhead. "I think perhaps this entire episode has gotten out of hand," she murmured to herself. "So much for precise planning! What new event could have happened?" She sighed, shrugged, pulled her tunic straight, brushed away the stray grains of sand on the table, opened her intricately-carved pen box, and brought out a new sheet of paper and an old, well-used pen.
...... A fast, double knock sounded on the outside trim of the doorway. She quickly folded the letter and placed it to one side. "Yes?"
...... The door curtain was shoved open, and Willi stuck his head in past the dull blue fabric. "Do we have any beeswax left?" he asked, holding up a big copper needle threaded with a length of coarse brown twine.
...... "I believe it's still in the starboard forward storeroom," she replied, motioning with the tip of the pen. "One of the upper shelves on the left, the last time I saw it." She scooted the bench closer to the work surface and tugged again at her tunic. Above the table, small drops of water squeezed in at the edge of the ceiling and slowly crept down the wall.
...... Willi nodded absent agreement, then gestured to the letter, which lay half-unfolded on the desk. "Any news of Merc's and my love, the beautiful Lady Misty?"
...... "Her name was not mentioned," she dryly replied, before pushing the letter to the side of the desk. "I'm afraid both you and Merc will have to live without her enchanting presence for the indefinite future." She pulled the blank sheet forward, took the top from the sand holder, and dipped the pen in the ink container, no longer looking up.
...... Willi shrugged and started to turn.
...... "Ships on the starboard quarter!" an excited voice yelled down the hatchway.
...... His hand braced on the timber of the doorway, Willi pulled himself around and clambered up the hatchway ladder, using every third step. The thin wood treads groaned and flexed dangerously under his boots.
...... Laying down her pen and shoving the door curtain out of the way in a billow of fabric, Xyly hurried right behind him up the ladder. She bounded out onto the deck to look quickly in all directions. Finally, she glanced upward to examine the set of the sails, then walked over to where Willi stood on the rail, holding onto a taut line for balance.
...... "It's Merc's Squadron!" Willi announced in a disgust. He yanked at his wide black belt, then tucked a thumb in one of the many empty tool loops. "And I swore we'd lost them at the last long ridge." Leaning precariously over the side, he stared down at the tree tops speeding by beneath the hull, a blurred mass of various shades of green. "Well, I'm not going to lead them to our crossing place."
...... Xyly only nodded, still watching the dozen or more enemy craft in the far distance.
...... Changing his grip on the rope and twisting sideways, he waved at the helmsman and shouted: "Hard to portside!"
...... The woman spun the wheel, and the ship started its turn.
...... Xyly pulled on his pants leg. "Not that way! I can feel a fire over in that direction." She held out her hand. "Go starboard, circle down by that small lake where the stream is thin, then climb the next ridge. There's supposed to be a sizable settlement there." A tangle of hair whipped up over her head, and she tucked it back into place under her hairband.
...... "And where there are settlements . . . ship traps!" He grinned and raised his voice. "Helmsman! Go starboard instead." He glanced at the deck chief. "Crowd on all the sail," he demanded, jumping off of the railing back to the deck.
...... The small ship shook violently as the turn was reversed. One group of crewmembers ran down the deck to the bow to change the angle of the forward sails. Quickly, the sailmaker, who had been working beside the railing there, gathered up his bolt of fabric and his tools, and tucked them into a safe corner before he trotted aft to his own assigned station.
...... Driven along by the force of the wind on the increased sail area, the small ship veered from the top of the ridge and raced down the forested slope of the mountain. Ahead of it, a tiny lake glimmered green-gray in the reflected gray light of the sky. Behind it, fourteen larger ships crested the ridge and raced down after it, bright multicolored battle flags streaming from their after masts.
...... Hanging on to a thick rope, which stretched and rocked with the movement of the ship, Willi pointed back beyond the ridge. "I do think there might be a rain storm forming back over there." The wind whipped the length of loose thread around his arm. He pushed the needle into his other sleeve for safekeeping and coiled the stiff thread carefully around his wrist.
...... While holding tightly to the stability of the deckrail, Xyly nodded her agreement. "And that storm is growing much too fast to be natural." Hand over hand for safety, she moved several meters along the railing. "There must be a WindCaller at work. Someone, who saw the fire, and is taking the necessary action." She paused to smack Willi on the shoulder. "And it's not Misty Tallpinin. So don't ask! I'd recognize her style of work anywhere," she added, as a murmured afterthought.
...... The small ship reached the bottom of the valley, slipped along the edge of the tiny lake, jumped the creek where the tree foliage was the thickest, and started up the next mountain, slowing with the incline in spite of the full sail. A brief flurry of raindrops from the gathering dark clouds warned of the approaching thunderstorm.
...... "Lookouts! Watch for any rocks ahead," Willi shouted into the rigging above him, before glancing around the deck. "Everybody! Stay awake. Helmsman, be ready for the changes," he ordered, lowering his voice. "All we need now, is to hit one of the stone outcroppings." He gestured outward. "I'm not going to join those Outlaws until I absolutely have to. And preferably not by shipwreck!"
...... Impatiently, Xyly waved that away. "Look at those two rock formations with the gap between. Right at the skyline," she specified, motioning forward. "Steer for between them, but shorten sail and be ready to turn the instant we are between them."
...... Willi peered at the stone outcroppings for several seconds, then yelled out the necessary instructions to the crew. In response, the crewmembers spread out along the deck, ready for the next fast stream of commands which would follow.
...... Behind them, slowly dropping farther back in the light wind, the fourteen larger ships circled the lake in a long double column and began to climb the hillside after the smaller ship. At the skyline beyond the pursuing fleet, a thickening mass of rain clouds was rolling in over the valley.
...... "Back sail!" Willi ordered, as his ship moved in between the rock outcrops.
...... Bobbing slightly on the growing gusts of wind, the small ship slowly moved forward, floating a meter above the jumble of trees which had grown in the acre of fertile soil, collected in the stone notch. From somewhere nearby, the tinkle of a small waterfall sounded over the whir of the wind in the tree branches below.
...... "It's at the left!" Xyly suddenly shouted, gesturing at the helmsperson. Her full sleeves billowed out in the gusts of wind.
...... The woman in charge of the helm immediately spun the wheel as many turns as possible, her feet braced solidly against the rough-finished deck planks. Rigging creaked and strained.
...... "Hard starboard," Willi demanded at the same moment. He motioned to encompass the entire crew. "Put on more sail, the instant we're clear."
...... The small ship swung smartly about, just missing the odd-textured green patch in the forest's canopy, which had been directly in front of it. Sailing in a shallow curve, its speed slowly increasing as more sail was angled to the wind, the small ship started down the mountainside toward the next valley.
...... High above, the wind-pushed storm clouds darkened the sky, dropping ever lower. The air became progressively cooler, and the wind's whine through the forest rose in volume and pitch. The uppermost tree limbs swayed in long rhythmic waves.
...... Far behind the fleeing craft, the two largest ships of the Squadron barreled through the opening between the rocks. The first of them floundered into the strange green patch and sank down, tearing an enormous gash in the artificial structure of ropes and green fabric. A loud crash of breaking timbers echoed across the valley. The wind scooped up dust and small debris to sprinkle it across the top of the forest, mixed with a fine spray of rain.
...... Instantly backing sail and turning, the other ship avoided the dangerous gap in the foliage. A third ship, under full sail, loomed up between the rock outcroppings, turned desperately, but rammed the stern of the other -- to be forced alongside by the strengthening gusts of wind. Both of the heavily damaged ships drifted along the ridge, locked together by a tangle of splintered masts and loose backstays. The valley was filled with the echoes of ripping sails, splintering planks, shattering timbers, and snapped rigging.
...... The next ship in the line had backed sail in time. Drifting only momentarily, it nosed carefully into the chaos ahead. Behind it, the other ships also moved cautiously forward, very slowly. Other odd-textured green patches were visible farther down the slope. The rain picked up to a steady patter.
...... The remaining ships anchored by catching thick tree branches in large multiple hooks. The crews lowered rope ladders to ground level and climbed down to explore the area and to render whatever assistance they could to the wrecked ship and its crew.
...... Hidden by the rain, the small ship continued its flight to the safety of distance.
...... Having crossed the narrow stream at the bottom of the next valley and sailed up the adjoining ridge, the small ship backed sail at the crest, hesitating and drifting with the rain-filled wind.
...... "That was absolutely perfect!" Willi announced, jumping down from his battle position on the rail. He stumbled slightly on the rough planking and caught himself with one hand on the edge of the middeck cabin roof. "They'll be just hours, sorting out that mess. There's more than enough time to do the crossing, before they can come up within sight again." He brushed absently at the rain water which dripped down from his hair.
...... With a tired nod, Xyly turned to the ladder leading down. "And I have to get back to my own work."
...... The sailmaker gathered up his tools and fabric and went below. Although already soaked, the woman at the wheel pulled on rainwear, which another crewmember had brought to her. Everyone on deck returned to their normal places and duties.
...... With its own echoing crash, the thunderstorm arrived to deliver the main portion of the deluge. Behind its very thick cover, the small ship crossed over the ridge and started down the other side of the mountain.

* * *

...... The morning came as a dull gray brightening of the shadows beneath the foliage. Fed by the grumbling brook, small clouds of mist swirled among the trees. On a limb somewhere in the mass of leaves, a bird whistled. The world smelled wet and dank, and the odor of the dead fire lay low along the ground.
...... This time, Justin was awake first. He added twigs to the embers in the crude stone hearth and shook his head once again at the ease with which the fire was restarted. Next, he put out a large loaf of the dark, coarse, local bread to warm for breakfast and hung a kettle of water over the flames. Tiny droplets of rain spattered down on the heating stones.
...... An hour later, with a fragment of canvas pulled up over her head as a rain hood, and clutching a hunk of the warm bread, Misty trudged into the tiny clearing, where Justin was hurriedly curry-combing the packhorse. She looked around, saw a convenient log, and sat down to pick at her meal.
...... "Good morning," he offered, looking over from his work. He motioned to the blurring of the fog. "At least, as much of the morning as I can see. Restless night?"
...... She nodded, yawned, and swallowed a bite of her breakfast. "My people think bad dreams are sent as a punishment for transgressions." Her canvas hood slipped, and she readjusted it, holding on to it with one hand.
...... "My people think they're sent as a punishment for too much pizza and beer," he replied, stepping back to view his work.
...... She shook her head, before tearing off another bit of bread. "I'm not going to even ask about that."
...... As they broke camp, loading the packhorse, she was silent and thoughtful -- often absent minded, going back to do chores repeatedly.
...... He said nothing about it, even when she loaded her knapsack, then kept it next to her.
...... Finished with the usual morning tasks, she sat on a nearby rock and motioned to him.
...... "Justin, there's something I've got to tell you."
...... Sauntering up, he found a place on an adjoining rock and sat quietly to wait. The fog had thickened, giving the forest a sealed-in feeling -- the sound of the brook was deadened.
...... With her legs drawn up and one arm wrapped around them, she tugged at her braid with her free hand and stared out at the gray, diffuse emptiness of the forest. "Do you remember what I said before? About having my own professional skills." She took a deep breath and slowly released it. "Justin, I'm a witch by trade. What my people call a White Witch."
...... He nodded, folded his hands in his lap, and waited, ignoring the thin spits of rain.
...... "And a very good one, at that." She tried a halfhearted smile but gave it up, settling for an aimless gesture out at the fog. "That caravan woman said she wanted a letter written. What she actually meant was that she wanted a letter transmitted to her partner at the Bazaar. That was what the fee was for . . . sending the letter itself to her partner. And that's exactly what I did." She glanced very quickly at him, then looked away, back downhill.
...... He shifted slightly and rubbed his nose. "The fog," he apologized, then added after a pause: "Unfortunately, I don't believe in magic."
...... Moving slowly, she slid off of her rock perch, searched the nearby ground, and picked up a relatively dry twig from a pile at the base of a tree. Clearing away dead leaves and other debris, she planted one end of the twig in the soil. Kneeling on the damp ground and oblivious of the thin rain, with her forefinger she drew seemingly random designs in the bare earth around the twig.
...... Hands still tightly clasped in his lap, Justin silently watched the operation.
...... After a few moments of quiet concentration, she snapped the twig in half, then stood up. Avoiding looking at him, she trudged to her stack of belongings, pulled her small knapsack up on her shoulders, adjusted the buckles, and started up the muddy trail into the fog. Her footsteps were heavy, their sound completely hidden by the muffled rumble from the brook.
...... The tree, where she'd picked up the twig, sounded with a low pitched, creaking groan. Its top swayed, making its many branches bounce. A cascade of dry leaves floated down.
...... A moment later, its trunk sheared off at the base in a ragged break. Hitting two other trees, rolling sideways, and scything off several large limbs, it crashed to the ground, throwing dust and leaves in all directions. The cracking sounds died away, and the tree lay on its side across a group of five large boulders. The fog moved in to cover the newly made emptiness.
...... Released from his startled paralysis, Justin jumped up, turned to call out, hesitated, then turned back to look at the fallen tree. The last of the leaves was settling to the ground.
...... He scratched at the dirt with a boot toe. After tossing his hands upward and adding a long, loud sigh, he rubbed his head, scowled at the dribbles of rainwater, and frowned at the packhorse which was grazing several yards away.
...... "I do know one thing," he announced. "From here on out, I'll do the cooking . . . she can gather the firewood!"
...... Retrieving the water-logged tether of the packhorse, he started up the muddy path after her at a brisk walk, deep in his own thoughts. The rain, as always, pattered down on top of him.
...... Within minutes, half hidden by the slowly dissipating fog, he saw her standing undecided at a fork in the trail.
...... "If it doesn't make any difference to you, go right," he called over the intervening distance. He pulled on his wet, thin leather gloves as he walked.
...... She turned and scowled at him, hands on her hips. "Go away, Justin," she demanded, her voice loud. "Leave me alone! If you don't, I'll turn you into a frog or something." She glanced over her shoulder at the two pathways but stood waiting.
...... Ambling up, he crossed his arms, leaned against a tree trunk, and solemnly shook his head. "No. You won't do that."
...... She motioned with one hand, palm up. "Why? Don't you believe I can?" She shrugged her shoulders angrily, making the knapsack bounce in response. Its small bright buckles creaked noisily with the strain. "Didn't I convince you? Don't you believe in magic now?" A sprinkling of droplets fell from the leaves overhead. She looked upward, then back at him.
...... He glanced upward in automatic response, then looked back at her. "Reluctantly, I do have to admit that you have some interesting abilities." Unfolding his arms, he quickly gestured with one hand. "However, magic just isn't your style."
...... "My style?" She reached over her shoulder to yank impatiently at a knapsack strap, then folded her arms also. "Just what is that suppose to mean?"
...... "No poison in the soup," he listed, casually waving the weighted end of the leather lead. "No incantations. No magic spells. No voodoo or its equivalent." Grinning, he offered his open hand. "A knife in my ribs some night maybe. But nothing as subtle as magic."
...... She opened her mouth, closed it, looked quickly around, then once more scowled at him. "Now that is an insult!" She yanked again at one of the straps, then shifted her footing on the overgrown, muddy footpath. "Perfectly true, but it's still insulting!" she added.
...... Ostentatiously ignoring his outstretched hand, she flounced to the packhorse, shed her knapsack, and tied it with one strap through a loop of rope to the mass of tradegoods. Arms swinging, ignoring the numerous puddles, she marched past him up the trail. "Right-hand fork, I think you said," she coolly remarked over her shoulder, then shoved her swinging braid out of the way.
...... Yanking hard on the packhorse's lead, Justin followed her forward along the ancient, eroded path.
...... Pummeled by the light rain, the fog was breaking up, as the rough trail approached the crest of the ridge. Long plumes of translucent white mist welled up from the cooler areas of the forest to dissipate wraith-like in the warmer air. Gusts of humid heat alternated with the piercing feel of damp chill. Steady spatters of tiny raindrops came at them, driven by the freshening breeze. The tree limbs waved and hummed.
...... At the top, where stunted trees and low-growing shrubs provided only a thin travesty of the forestland, she hobbled off of the trail to plop down on a loose pile of small stones. Pulling off her left boot, she looked at its sole, turned it upside down and shook something out of it, then pulled it back on. "You're so silent," she observed. "Did you run out of questions so soon?"
...... Justin stood in the center of the muddy strip, unmoving. "Actually, I was thinking about that light source the caravan woman was holding," he replied, idly swinging the end of the tether. "It wasn't a candle or a lamp. The flame was much too bright."
...... "They're called Everlast Candles." She paused to kick a length of dead vine out of the way, before starting off on the down-side of the trail. "They aren't everlasting, but they don't fail often. The fire at the end isn't very hot, and if you touch it, it goes out. Then the Candle has to be reactivated." She ducked around a tree trunk to avoid a small stream which meandered down the center of the trail. "That's one of the duties of a Witch here. Lighting newly-found or damaged Candles. And that's what I meant when I talked about professional skills. I know how to do quite a lot that most people don't."
...... He jerked the tether and followed her again, two paces back. Behind him, the packhorse squelched its hooves in a shallow mud puddle, rainwater dripping off its saturated coat.
...... "Who makes them?" he asked, shoving a small tree branch out of his way. "The candles, I mean." He tromped through the trickle of water, ignoring it. The rain came down harder, breaking up the ground fog completely.
...... "The ancient people," she answered, looking back over her shoulder. "They made them. Now days, if a candle really goes out, that's the end of it. The ancient peoples must have had thousands of them. One can find them in the ruins, usually singly, but sometimes as a box of them." She stooped to duck under a low hanging limb.
...... "How do they work?" He slowed to herd the packhorse over a particularly slippery stretch of the trail. The rain let up to a fine spray again, coating the leaves, which in turn dripped with large splatters.
...... She shrugged and waved one hand without looking back. "There's always a tiny pinpoint of flame. If you want more, you stroke the Candle upward. If you want less, you stroke it downward." She gestured up and down with one hand. "As to what makes them work, no one now knows. If it's still active, only extinguished, I know how to relight it. But if it's completely dead, it's junk, and you go buy a new one."
...... She stopped at the next fork in the trail and looked both ways, undecided. "We'd better go this way," she suggested, motioning to the more overgrown righthand side. With another glance over her shoulder, she added: "There's a fire in the far distance the other way."
...... He rolled his eyes upward, shook his head slightly, and sighed inaudibly. "Another of your abilities?" he inquired in a cool tone. He turned slightly to scowl at the packhorse for a moment.
...... "Yes," she admitted simply. "The fire's still pretty far away, and there isn't much chance that it'll come this way far enough to bother us." She stumbled over a segment of creeper and recovered, catching herself on a tree limb. "But, since there's an easy choice now, we might as well take the safe side." She paused to slap her hands together, then wiped her palms on a bunch of leaves hanging down from the nearest tree.
...... "I didn't see any smoke from the ridge top back there," he recalled. "Not that one can see much through all these trees. I didn't smell any smoke either, although the wind was from that direction." He stopped long enough to wipe a mass of mud from his boot top. The packhorse sheared off a clump of grass beside the path.
...... She shook her hands to force the rainwater off. "The trees burn without much visible smoke. And that's a real danger here in the forest. I'm glad to see you're so careful in camp."
...... "I noticed how easy it is to start a campfire, even with rained-soaked wood." He halted a second time to scrape his boot soles clean on a sharp-edged rock. Tiny streams of muddy water carried the dark residue away.
...... "Wood has to be thoroughly soaked, like in a stream, before it won't burn. Or fresh-cut." She motioned forward to start the march again. "And then, if you leave it out in the open for overnight, it'll start the next morning. Forest fires are common during the summer months. Mostly from the lightning of the thunderstorms." She waved that away. "But then again, the rains put them out too. So it balances well enough."
...... "You sound as though you belong to a group," he remarked, as he trudged along. A dead limb cracked sharply, when he stepped on it. "Some sort of organization. You mentioned a Guild of White Witches."
...... She nodded, her braid swinging with the motion. "I'm a member of the Guild. The White is because the Temple is built of a rare, pure white stone." Suddenly, she sneezed. "Sorry!"
...... "Bless you," he said automatically. "Do you all do the same work? Everyone in the Guild, I mean."
...... "No. It's difficult to explain to a stranger." She hesitated for words. "There are degrees."
...... They reached a small brook with a large rock in its center. She jumped from the shore to the rock to the opposite shore, while he slowly waded through the knee-deep water, urging the packhorse on ahead of him.
...... "The easiest power for someone to master, if they have the talent, is Scribe," she explained, as she walked along the next section of comparatively rocky trail. "The Scribes send and receive letters for anyone who needs it. They're a general public service which anyone can use."
...... "A new variation on instant communication," he decided, half to himself. He glanced up at the overhead foliage which still leaked a steady stream of droplets. The surrounding area smelled of wet and rotting vegetation.
...... "Also, Scribes are known for their high ethics and honesty," she continued, ignoring the remark. "Sometimes, if you can get the right people together, you can send money. Sometimes, the Scribes in big towns do money changing and hold deposits and so on. That's all independent of the SeaLords."
...... The stony section of trail ended, and the mud returned -- thick, black, and slippery. On both sides of the narrow path, brightly colored mushrooms grew in odd-shaped patches.
...... "The first real Witch is the FireCaller, someone who can start a flame when needed," she went on, after hearing no further comment. "Our people don't know how to start fires without help. They carry hot coals around as needed. The potters make special clay pots with holes in them, to use as fire carriers." She paused to glance over her shoulder. "I noticed that you seem to have the FireCaller talent yourself. You can start campfires from cold wood."
...... He halted long enough to pry a stone from the hoof of the packhorse. Putting away his knife, he wiped his dirty hands on the stained cover of the pack, allowing the continuous rain to slowly wash the dirt away.
...... "My people have a method for doing it," he admitted. "Nothing magical, but it's not readily transferable." Checking the lashings on the tradegoods, he retied two knots. "So we won't be going into commercial competition with you."
...... She nodded but remained silent, looking around the area of the trail before starting off in the lead again at a fast pace. Far overhead, a flickering of the gray sky signified a lightning bolt, barely visible between the tree limbs. The only sounds were the dripping leaves and the wind's low whistle.
...... He plodded along behind, sliding occasionally on the worst muddy patches or stumbling over loose stones which jutted up from the mud. A fast brook, tumbling over worn-smooth rocks, paralleled the trail for a while, then veered off into a swamp-like mass of ferns which grew among the trees.
...... "What other kinds of Witches are there? Besides Fire-Callers," he inquired, bored with the silence, the constant drizzle, and the persistently dreary scenery.
...... "It's not so much a kind, as a level of expertise. There's the Scribes at the bottom, one skill only. Then the FireCallers, one or two in every village. And the PlaceFinders, the Witches who guide the ships. They can sense the presence of large groups of people, like towns and caravans. And other Witches! But they have a very strict discipline as to what they will tell you about and what they won't discuss."
...... "That was the skill you used to find the Grand Bazaar for the caravan leader." He kicked at a small stone only to find it was the top of a much larger, buried rock.
...... She twisted to frown at him from several yards ahead, then nodded and turned in time to duck under a tree limb. The backflip of the wet branch tossed fine spray in all directions.
...... "Then there's the CandleTinkers, who fix the Everlast Candles, and a few other minor artists," she finished in a bored tone. "It's all a little bit involved."
...... As a short rest break, she stopped to sit on a boulder and look at a small waterfall, whose muted roar filled the background of the otherwise silent forest. A jumble of broken twigs jammed the top edge, dividing the flow into several streams. Around its edges large masses of moss thrived in the continuous spray.
...... Justin caught up with her and halted also to look at the pretty scene. "So who is at the top of the list?" he asked, after a long pause. "Those with the most difficult skills."
...... She stood, rubbed the soles of her boots on the boulder, then started off along the trail, again setting a fast pace. "The highest level of expertise is the WindCallers, the Witches who can call up and disperse a thunderstorm." She looked inquiringly back over her shoulder at him.
...... "At this point, I wouldn't dispute anything," he allowed with a grin, trudging along behind, followed by the packhorse.
...... "You better not!" Smiling faintly, she caught the end of her braid and squeezed it, watching the water drip to the sodden ground. She sighed and shrugged, flipping the braid out of her way. "A Witch has to be a WindCaller to be elected to the Five Administrators. But not necessarily a really good WindCaller." She motioned a brushing-away gesture. "I doubt I'll ever reach that level. I cause too much trouble for people."
...... After a minute of silence, he remarked: "If you expect me to disagree with that, you are very mistaken."
...... "An idle hope. And definitely a mistake!" she laughed. "I know I'm not a politician. I wouldn't want to be." She paused for consideration, dodging around a shallow puddle. "Actually, no one can turn anyone into an animal. That was just an idle threat."
...... "However, your other skills are sufficient unto themselves," he retorted, kicking a stray rock off of the trail to watch it bounce into the underbrush between the trees.
...... "Especially my knife handling," she tartly answered.
...... In many deceptive twists and switchbacks through the forest, the stone-littered, muddy trail led to the bottom of the next deserted valley, where a broad but shallow creek swirled its way through the trees. Large bushes precariously clung to the eroded sides of the streambed, and trees with exposed roots spread a not-quite-continuous canopy over the slowly moving water. In a straight line across the stream, one every few yards, stood ancient crumbling piers.
...... Stopping at a low spot on the bank to study the layout of the hand-fitted, square stones, Justin motioned toward the artifacts. "It looks as though there once was a bridge here." He eased down into the water, carefully watching his footing. "However, it is shallow enough here to ford without trouble." He waded farther out, pulling on the tether of the packhorse. "The bottom's soft," he warned.
...... From sitting on the edge of the bank, she carefully lowered herself into the water, grimaced at the cold, and waded out. The stream bottom was very soft, paved with waterplants, and quite difficult to walk on without sliding. Moving slowly, she splashed her way ahead of Justin and the packhorse.
...... "Hold up!" he demanded loudly. "I need a break." Halfway across, he clambered onto a large rock, which had fallen from one of the piers, and sat with his head propped up with one hand.
...... Circling back a few paces, she climbed the broken side of the pier and stood on the flat top to look out over the distant hills, previously obscured by the leaf canopy. Her soaked clothing dripped water in a small, steady trickle. "A ship," she announced, pointing toward the small lake in the downstream distance.
...... Wrapping the tether around a tiny tree, which grew from a crevice in the stonework, Justin stood on his toes to peer in the indicated direction. A single small ship had crested the previous ridge and was sailing down the hillside to cross the valley beyond the lake.
...... "A trader?" he suggested, holding his hand over his eyes to shield them from the slow drizzle.
...... "It could be," she allowed. "And it's sure moving fast." She turned to stare in the opposite direction up the valley. "And now, there's a thunderstorm forming, where that forest fire is. There must be a WindCaller at work. Not that . . . ." She suddenly gestured wildly toward the center of the ridge. "There go more ships. And they're sailing all out, too."
...... Two dozen large ships, all sails set on their double masts, had crested the ridge and were spreading out, following the path of the first small ship. At the aft mast of the leader, a string of signal flags unfurled. Veering slightly, the ships separated into two groups, still moving toward the farther end of the lake.
...... She looked all around once more, then sat on the mound of rubble on top of the pier. "I wonder what that's all about?" she idly commented, tugging at the clumps of grass which flourished in the thin layer of dirt there.
...... He slid off the boulder and splashed into the water. "I think I'd prefer to be back under the trees." Yanking on the leather lead, he started the packhorse moving again.
...... "You know, I think I just might agree with you," she allowed. "For once!" She climbed down rapidly and splashed into the water after him.
...... Moving as quickly as possible along the slippery streambed, they floundered their way to the opposite shore. Grabbing at an exposed tree root, she climbed the steep embankment, knocking loose various bits of earth to land splashing in the water below.
...... Justin waded three yards downstream to a more gradual incline and led the horse up the slope. Stopping at the only relatively dry rock, he dropped down and leaned tiredly back against the stone outcropping. The packhorse stood on the edge of the bank, water dripping from its coat, its head hanging down.
...... In another minute, Misty shoved her way through the bushes which lined the shore, looked around at the mud and trees, then pushed at him. "Move over. You have the only seat in the place!"
...... He slid to the edge of the outcropping to make room. "It takes being soaked again to realize that once, a long while ago, I actually was dry," he offered. He scowled up at the fragments of sky somewhat visible between the sparse tree limbs. "At least, it's something I can look forward to again. Some future lovely hour or so!"
...... "Exactly," she tiredly agreed. "But not until that rainstorm breaks and goes away again."
...... They sat together in silence for several minutes, while the water dripped off of their saturated clothes and created a small puddle at their feet. The packhorse drift along the bank, nosing for vegetation, dragging the tether behind it.
...... "How do those sailing ships work?" he asked, breaking the prolonged silence. He folded his hands behind his head. "They just skim above the trees."
...... She leaned comfortably against his shoulder. "It's not all that complicated." She waved one hand back and forth. "There's a big wooden cradle in the middle of the hull. A Repeller Stone is braced into place inside it. When the Stone is active, it's repelled away from plantlife, holding the ship up."
...... She paused for a yawn before continuing: "There are plant-covered ramps to let the ships down into the lakes, and also plant-covered bridges to allow them to cross rivers which are too wide for the tree foliage to bridge. Like right through here, for example. This creek is a little bit too wide to just sail right over."
...... "But what moves the ship along its course?" he persisted, shifting his position on the rock bench. "They look like merely sailing ships."
...... "The wind blows the sails." She shrugged and motioned with both hands. "Personally, I've never thought that the wind was strong enough to move a big thing like a ship around. Anyhow, you set the sails to the wind, and the ship travels up to about ten times what a person can walk." She gestured a circle. "There's a wheel at the back, which connects to pulleys which connect to the cradle. When the Stone is rotated in its cradle, the ship turns."
...... "Okay," he allowed.
...... "You're nice and warm," she decided, shoving up tightly against him. "Don't go away. Anyhow, the Repeller Stones don't work on a lake. So there's an auxiliary rudder to steer with on water. Not that one goes very far on water, usually."
...... He glanced toward the packhorse, then looked back at the shoreline. "What does this Stone look like?" he requested.
...... "It's a couple or three yards long, and a yard or so in diameter. There's eight or twelve flat facets. It's opaque black in color, and feels smooth and glassy. When they're not active, they're rough and stone-like, a dull gray in color." She shoved him with an elbow. "That's something else a Witch does. Activate a Repeller Stone, whenever there's a need. There aren't that many Stones . . . maybe a hundred." She paused to run her hand across her hair, then tried to unstick her drenched shirt. "I can remember only one being discovered during my own lifetime. I presume they've all been found and used by now."
...... The dripping of the overhead foliage increased, as the rainstorm broke. Peals of thunder echoed through the valley.
...... "I guess we'd best be going." He boosted himself up from his seat on the stone. "Or I may sit here the rest of the day."
...... "I know what you mean." She slid off of the rock to land in the mud, splashing it across her worn boots. "And of course, the next section is uphill. But it does put the creek between us and the fire."
...... He chased the packhorse and recovered the leather lead. They stumbled through the brush, until they found the trail, and started on up its twisting muddy slope to the next ridge.
...... The weed-strewn, eroded path climbed through the same muddy terrain, beneath the same dripping trees. The same wet bushes wiped themselves on their pants. The same loose rocks rolled beneath their boots, and the same gray light, through gaps in the overhead leaves, illuminated the same dreary green-gray of the forest. The rain pattered down in a slow, never-ending drizzle.
...... At the crest, where the endless trees were interrupted by a mass of exposed rock, she stopped to look down into the valley at the creek with its distant line of crumbling piers. "I never thought adventure could be so boring," she complained.
...... "Most all of it is," he stated in a hard tone. "Let me assure you of that." He ran his hands over his hair to squeeze out some of the water. "At least, the storm has slowed." Without warning, a heavy rain started to beat on the ground around them, dropping in waves to land on their shoulders and heads.
...... "It figures," he remarked.
...... "Well, it'll finish putting the fire out," she offered, absently kicking at the stony ground. "Are you already out of questions? Remember, I'm going to earn my keep."
...... "Other than looking forward to the next campsite, I think I'll stop thinking," he retorted, jerking on the tether and marching off along the trail.
...... Rounding a thick upthrust of rock, he suddenly stopped to stare at the strange clearing ahead.
...... Just beyond two massive outcrops of light red stone, the vegetation had been cleared away for several yards around. The creepers and bushes had been cut off at ground level, and most of the trees had been toppled -- their stumps showed the traces of crude axes. The few trees, which still stood, were dead. High overhead, ropes and fabric strips had been woven between them.
...... "Let's get through here quick," she ordered from behind him. "I don't want to meet any villagers."
...... "What is this?" He started forward again at a fast pace through the center of the cleared area.
...... "I told you that the Outlaws build traps to crash and pillage ships. This is one of them. There's no plantlife here to act with the Repeller Stones. So the ships fall through and break up on the rocks." She waved her hand at the jumble hanging above them. "That mass of fabric up there is camouflage. It doesn't look like much from down here, but from a fast moving ship, it's hard to spot, until it's too late to do anything."
...... They hurried through the area, crunching over the many dead twigs, and plunged back into the dubious protection of the forest. Following the path up a short slope, they crossed the backbone of the ridge and marched down the descending segment of rutted trail. The rain continued to dribble down from the dense overhead leaves.

chapter four CHAPTER FIVE chapter six

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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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