Chapter Eight
Sea of Trees


...... Justin quickly sat up, shoving off the blanket. Outside of the tent, the gray sky already was bright with the new day, complete with a fine drizzle of rain. On a heat-stained boulder a few yards away, Misty was sitting and staring out across the desolation, rebraiding her hair and tying it with a length of thin blue cloth. In the distance beyond her, the packhorse nosed through the ash, intent upon something unseen. The ruined forestland was completely silent.
...... Pausing only long enough to rub his back, where the uneven stone surface had pressed through the blankets, he scrambled together his ash-stained clothes, hurriedly dressed, and ducked out of the tent.
...... "Good morning," he offered, plopping on a convenient rock to pull on his boots. He ineffectually dusted the ash-coated toes.
...... "It certainly is," she agreed, laughing. "One of the best I can remember. Apparently, you are a fast learner."
...... "I'm glad my efforts were satisfactory." He grinned, slid down from the rock, and hurried off toward the packhorse.
...... "So satisfying, that I'm considering offering you full-time employment," she called after him, finishing her braid by tying a large bow. "But first, I'll have to wait to see if the quality continues at its present level." Hopping off the rock, she paused to smooth the wrinkles from her pants legs, then looked up from under her eyelashes. "And I don't intend to wait too long!"
...... By the time he'd caught the packhorse and loaded the trade-goods in a closely roped bundle, she had pulled down the tent, tied up the bedrolls, and gathered up all of the loose items. He added them to the end of the pack, before taking a final tour of the campsite for anything overlooked. Absently, he rubbed again at the worst sore spot on his back.
...... "I know the feeling!" she called with another laugh, waving the tether. "That's why I stayed on top, as much as possible. If we ever find somewhere comfortable, I'll have you in the upper bunk." Softly giggling, she brushed at the rainwater dripping from her bangs.
...... "Please note that I have no complaint," he tossed back, finished with his inspection. He kicked sodden clumps of white ash from his boots. "None whatsoever!"
...... "You'd better not!" she mocked, flipping her braid over her shoulder. "Not that you're much softer than a blanket-covered rock. I'm sporting a couple of nice bruises myself. But they're where nobody's going to see them." With a peremptory gesture and a tug on the leather lead, she started along what must have been the trail leading to the ridge. "Tonight, I'll show them to you," she giggled over her shoulder.
...... With a wry laugh and a single shake of his head, he loped across the ground to catch up with her. Small clouds of gray ash spurted from his heels to be quickly washed back down by the thin rain. The sword sheaths bounced along his shoulders.
...... She started to jog ahead but was held back by the packhorse after only a few steps. He paused beside her, kissed her hard on the lips, then stationed himself a few yards ahead, alert for any new trouble. Every few minutes, he shoved at the sword sheaths, moving them to new positions on his back.
...... Reaching the top of the ridge once more, they carefully picked their way across the field of loose stones, and started down through the black, ruined tree trunks on the other side. There was no visible path, and no shrubbery to slow their progress down the hillside.
...... The forest fire had destroyed all of the vegetation in the next valley -- the sides of both ridges and the valley floor itself. Everything was gone: The grasses and the low bushes which somehow had thrived in the gloomy shelter of the tree foliage, the thick-stemmed vines and creepers, the beds of mosses and ferns which carpeted damp spots of earth, the smaller and stunted trees, and the foliage canopy itself. Only the black, charred, branchless tree trunks poked up out of the light-gray tide of ash to jeer at the constant dark-gray clouds of the sky and the falling rain. Everything was silent still.
...... Yet, meandering around the bases of the ruined trees, small brooks and streams continued to bubble their own destiny.
...... "What a mess," he remarked, stepping carefully to avoid the rocks and loose stones which, concealed by the ash, were a constant dangerous threat of a broken ankle.
...... "It'll grow back fast enough," she advised, her eyes on the ground immediately in front of her. Pausing to glance quickly around, she added: "Look there!" Again watching her footing, she pointed in the general direction of an outcropping, a few yards beyond their selfmade trail.
...... From a crack in the rock, a small, charred, tree trunk protruded. A few inches from its tip, a tiny leaf was unfolding.
...... Justin only grunted an acknowledgement, continuing to watch suspiciously the wreckage of the slope.
...... "A month from now, you'll not be able to tell this area from the rest of the forest," she explained, with a sweeping gesture.
...... She slid on a buried stone, and only the packhorse's head, bumping into her back, saved her from a damaging fall. She halted for a moment, softly stroking its muzzle, while she caught her breath. "Pretty thing. We need to find a pool, and wash all that ash away. You need a good combing, too." She patted its head and started off again, glancing up to see Justin's scowl. She laughed, and he had to smile before turning and starting off again himself.
...... "What have you got against this poor horse?" she asked his back. "I think he's pretty!"
...... "Can I answer that in weekly installments?" he tossed over his shoulder. "By the time I've finished explaining, I'll be ready to shove that dumb, worthless nag into a hamburger grinder . . . and you'll already be turning the handle!" He pushed again at the sword sheaths, glared up at the dripping clouds, and waved his hand. "Change the subject, please."
...... "Me? Hey!" She ducked down to pick up a black stone from a tiny creek bed. "You're the one who hired the teacher. It's your job to ask the questions." She tossed the small, round rock in the air several times, catching it in her free hand.
...... A minute later, she lowered her voice tone. "Although, after that first lesson, I think you may have a bit more to teach me. Oh, no!" She suddenly halted.
...... The ax-cut tree trunks and piled foundation stones were all which remained of a small village. A few scraps of melted metal littered the low dunes of dirty white ash. Along what must have been the only street, a slow creek tumbled over small stones.
...... "Come on!" he ordered, his boots splashing through the few inches of water. He sought out the easiest way between the charred trees. "They must have gotten away okay. Their bones wouldn't have been destroyed by the fire, and there are none here."
...... "I hope so." She followed his footsteps to the small creek, her own boots leaving a swirled trail in the fine ash. "They must know about fires. They happen here all the time." She splashed through the shallow obstacle. "The lightning of the summer storms. That's why the WindCallers are so important. There's at least one of us in every major town, just to control the fires." A loud splashing of hooves in water behind her underlined her spoken thoughts.
...... When the route leveled out on the valley floor, they paused beside a pile of boulders to rest and to tear apart a large loaf of dark bread. He feed the biggest lumps to the packhorse. "Sorry, old horseburger. But it's the best we've got right now."
...... The rain dripped to a stop, but the low, gray, translucent clouds still raced across the sky. From beyond the next crest, a large, dark bird sailed out, made a graceful circle in the sky, and swooped back the way it had come.
...... "I wanted to travel alone with what I could carry," he suddenly said. "I thought it would attract less attention that way. This walking flank steak was forced on me by my . . . leaders." He chewed his own small meal. "Quite often, the temptation to sell him off, as a plowhorse, is overwhelming."
...... "I thought you people were organized as communal tribes." She leaned tiredly against the rocks, eating her share. "Doesn't he belong to the group or clan or whatever?"
...... "Probably." He shrugged and dusted some crumbs from his hands. "But, for the duration of this trek, he's my beast as I need. Or not need! Don't your people have communal property ceded to individuals at their discretion? Most peoples do."
...... "I suppose so," she allowed. After a few minutes, she stood upright and motioned to the ruins around them. "I can't imagine why that ship had a fire aboard. It's just not done. Everyone knows better than to do something as stupid as that."
...... "Maybe somebody was desperate for a good hot meal." He gulped down the last of his portion. "I know the feeling!"
...... She ran her fingers over the top of her head, then frowned at soot and fine ash on them. "A hot bath, more likely," she countered in a weary tone.
...... He picked up the end of the tether from where it was dragging along the ground. "I can see why fire's prohibited. Sailing ships can catch fire easily enough, but the speed the forest burnt!" He shook his head and tugged on the lead. "Get your hooves in gear, Hamburger Helper. We've got a ways to go yet."
...... She stretched and rubbed her arms, then turned to take the leather lead from him. "That is one of the real disadvantages of the sailing ships," she continued, looking upward to locate the best way up the hillside. "First, no hot meals. Everything's preserved and cold. Second, cramped quarters. Not much room to move around, even out on deck. Third, no bath water. I like a hot bath. And that is what I miss most here!" she growled, before starting off toward the first of the uphill switchbacks. The packhorse ambled along behind.
...... Looking upward at the steep climb, he sighed deeply. "Maybe we can find another hot spring." He trudged after her.
...... "It'd be better than nothing," she agreed, carefully picking her way along the hillside. "That's what I really want most. A hot bath, followed by a warm man." She twisted to look back. "We're not going to have much time together, Justin. So I'm going to use it to the fullest. I'll have to settle down sometime to a State marriage, but I want to have some good memories, and I intend to stock up. And I shall see to it that you are one of them. Several of them, actually."
...... "But not to Mercadoratius," he suggested, waiting as she easing the packhorse over a particularly bad section of loose cinders. "A marriage, I mean."
...... "No! Never to the jerk, Merc," she laughed, tugging on the leather lead once more. Her braid slipped forward, and she shoved it back again. "I don't expect to have a particularly great marriage, but I won't settle for a bad one, either. Merc's not typical. He's just a fool who thinks he looks good and sounds better. There are quite a few other eligible men available. Several very nice ones."
...... "You sound resigned to your future." With his boot toe, he pushed at a stone on the path. It rolled to the edge of a small trickle of water and stopped without falling in.
...... She nodded without looking back. "I was brought up to expect a certain future. And it's not that bad! I have my profession as a Witch. I've always expected to marry someone essentially picked out by my parents, for reasons of family interests." She paused for thought without breaking stride. "But I cannot understand why everyone is acting so strangely! The Council in agreeing to Mercadoratius. The Five Administrators in agreeing with the Council. My parents in agreeing with any of them! They know me better than that." She shrugged and gestured with the tether. "Or so I thought. I cannot understand how anyone could conceive of Merc, as being a suitable match for someone like me, under any circumstances whatsoever! Everything seems so crazy."
...... At the crest of the next ridge, the trees were less damaged, their branches singed and leafless, but still intact. The undergrowth had withered with the heat but had not burned. Somewhere in its depths, some small animal foraged for what it could find. The ash was thick underfoot, but here and there wisps of green grass poked up through the desolation.
...... Beyond the wide stream, which flowed along the valley floor, the forest was undamaged -- as thick and green and impeding, as always before. In the distance, a bird chirped to proclaim its domain. The web of trails was evident again, as worn ruts in the dark green undergrowth.
...... Partway down the hillside, they stopped for a rest. Sitting side by side on an outcropping, hands clasped together, they looked out over the valley. The narrow river moved sluggishly along below them, dark and muddy. Behind them, the packhorse grazed contentedly on the rich vegetation.
...... "It may not be a warm bath," Justin remarked, breaking the companionable silence. He waved toward the river. "But by the time we ford that, we'll both be clean . . . and soaked."
...... "It'll be better than nothing." She rubbed her face with one hand. "I've always enjoyed frolicking in water, especially warm, soapy water. Simple enjoyments for simple people."
...... "Simple enjoyments for highly clever people," he replied, his tone amused.
...... "Who? Me?" She motioned toward herself.
...... "Clever and determined people," he rephrased, then stood up. "Let's go. We can reach the next valley by darkness. Maybe we can find a nice pool there to camp by."
...... "Determined to have my way," she agreed, following him back to the trail. "If I can't have the first part of the prescription, I'll settle for a double dose of the second."
...... Walking along the bank of the creek, they found a shallow section and forded there. By the time they'd tugged and shoved the packhorse through the cold, slowly-moving water with its soft and sticky bed, they both were rinsed clean of the adherent ash and thoroughly soaked. Wringing as much water as they could from their clothes, they trudged up one more hillside. Without warning, a squall loomed up over the crest and began a downpour.
...... The perpetually gray sky was dimming to the dark gray of twilight, as they crested the ridge and looked down into the valley below. The rumble of a large river, pounding over the rocks in its path, could be heard in the distance.
...... "Lights," he observed, motioning downward. He glanced back at the dense forest they'd just pushed through, then looked down into the valley again.
...... "It's a bridge down there," she explained, her voice uneasy. "A ship's bridge. That single bright light is right at the approach. You can see some smaller village lights around it."
...... He shifted position and shrugged to loosen his shoulder muscles. "A little more explanation?" he requested.
...... She took a step forward, then turned halfway. "That's a wide river down there. The sailing ships can't cross it. So there's a bridge for the ships to use. And walking travelers too." She took another step forward, then stopped again.
...... "Continue, if you please would," he requested, pacing forward to look over her shoulder. "I can't see much from this distance." The packhorse moved forward and bumped him in the back. He turned momentarily to push its head away.
...... Shifting her weight made a boot sole squeak. "Across many of the bigger rivers, the ancient peoples built their own bridges. I think I said something about it before. My people found the piers still standing. They timbered between the piers, planted vegetation, and set up villages to tend it." She gestured a rectangle in the air. "So that's where the ships cross. They come down the ridge, pay the toll, cross the bridge, and climb up the next ridge." She turned sideways, then twisted to look over her shoulder. "That one down there looks small. There's only the village on the one side, and not even a guard station on the other."
...... He turned toward her in the darkness. "Then here is where you can catch a ship to Center," he slowly stated. "Like you described before."
...... She stepped back to the packhorse and yanked on the ropes which held the tradegoods. "That was before." Finding one rope loose, she retied it.
...... Finished with that task, she marched past him and down the trail toward the valley. He yanked on the tether and followed her. As the first of more raindrops landed on his shoulders, he looked up at the overhanging foliage and sighed.
...... Silently, walking a few yards apart, they followed the steep curves of the trail to the outskirts of the village. At the end of the pathway, where the bridge timbers started, there was a small, single-story guardhouse, lit by the brilliant white light of a Candle mounted under the eve of the roof.
...... On a rough wood bench beside the door, sheltered from the thin rain by the long overhang of the eve, two guards sat, half-asleep.
...... "Well, we're here." He restlessly shifted the tether from hand to hand, as he kicked at the mud on his boots.
...... "Yes. I suppose so. We're here," she repeated, tugging loose the fabric band which fastened her braid. "One just has to pay a small toll, and one can walk across." She shook it out and ran her fingers over the many wrinkles.
...... He looked up at the rain dripping from the leaves. "Is there an inn somewhere here? A place you can stay comfortably, until a ship comes?"
...... She carefully adjusted the end of her braid and retied the bow. "Yes," she allowed, then took in a deep breath. "And no!"
...... "And what's that supposed to mean?" he demanded, irritation in his voice. He dug his heel into the wet ground and shifted his footing.
...... "It means yes, there is an inn," she answered, just as sharply. "A quite nice one, in fact, as I recall someone saying." She slowed and lowered her voice. "And it also means no. There is no place here for me to stay to wait for a ship. Not right now." Arms tightly folded, she turned to look directly at him in what little light the forest provided. "How much farther do you have to go?" she demanded harshly. "To wherever you think you're going."
...... He meet her eyes for a moment, then looked down, rubbing one boot toe in the dirt. "Two days, perhaps three. Then I'll be at the place where I'm supposed to be."
...... "Ships come through here all the time," she softly remarked. Yanking her head around caused her braid to sail over her shoulder to bang against her folded arms.
...... "It's several more hard marches," he warned without looking up.
...... "I've held up quite well, thank you," she retorted angrily. Unfolding her arms, she flipped the braid back behind her shoulder and held out her hand. "It's also more long nights. And I'm still short several memories."
...... He looked up and took her hand in his. "I . . . didn't feel I could . . . had any right to ask." Relief was in his voice.
...... "My tutor taught me one thing which has proved exactly correct!" Her other fist braced on her hip, Misty glared at him. "She always told me 'all men are stupid.' Absolutely correct!" Moving next to him, she tightly clasped his fingers. "So we go to wherever you have to go. Then I can hike back here." She smiled and motioned with her free hand. "There'll always be another ship."
...... He wrapped his free arm around her, quickly hugging her against him. "And I can promise that you won't hike back alone!"
...... "I'd hoped that you'd say that," she allowed with a quiet laugh. She pulled against his grasp, and he let go.
...... Stepping a pace away, she twisted to gesture toward the bridge. "But right now, we have to get across. If I'd been going to catch a ship, it wouldn't have made any difference if anyone recognized me. But now, considering that reward, I don't think I want anyone to see me, and I don't see how I can sneak across." Absently, she brushed rainwater from her hair.
...... "I do," he instantly replied, walking back to the packhorse and the load of tradegoods. "I have quite a few supplies here."
...... She tilted her head, puzzled, but said nothing.
...... "Fortunately for once, because your people despise Black-Riders, they're not going to take any interest in an itinerant weaponsmith. Or his woman." He found several bundles of cloth and pulled them out. "Especially, if she's wearing what would seem to them to be her natural garb." He unfolded the largest item, a long garment. "You can duck behind the shrubbery here and change."
...... "If I ever see my tutor again, I'm going to have to admit to her, that she was exactly right about one thing," Misty commented in an exasperated tone, as she leaned against a tree to yank off her muddy boots.
...... Stepping up on a stone to keep her feet clean, she kicked off her pants, then pulled off her shirt. Summoning him with a crooked finger, she tossed him her wadded clothes and held out her hand for the dress.
...... "Not the most fetching thing I've seen lately," she mused, holding the roughly sewn, coarse fabric up for close inspection in the dim light. It was dyed a washed-out blue tone. "What do you think?"
...... "I think you'd best get dressed, Beautiful" he retorted, carefully folding her clothes. "Before my blood pressure gives me a heart attack!"
...... Laughing, she pulled on the ragged dress and wiggled it around to its least worse fit. Sitting on the rock, she struggled back into her wet leather boots.
...... He unfolded the other bundles, shaking out two, white fabric shawls and two, dark colored, short cloaks with hoods. He wrapped one shawl around his face, leaving only his eyes clear, and donned a cloak, pulling the hood up. The rain immediately soaked the fabric down around his head.
...... Motioning her forward, he tucked her braid down the back of her dress, wrapped the other shawl around her face, added the short cloak, and carefully sculpted the soggy hood to hide her blonde bangs.
...... After gathering up the tether, he started forward along the muddy path to the bridge. She waited a moment for the packhorse, then caught hold of a rope and walked along, her shoulders slumped and her head down.
...... He glanced back and nodded. "Okay. Very good!"
...... When they walked into the circle of light at the guard post, one of the men looked up, yawned, and rose from the bench. "Halt, you there."
...... Justin stopped abruptly, reaching up to pull the shawl from around his face. "I wish to cross here." He laid the length of thick cloth across the back of his neck on top of the hood. For a silent minute, the guard studied him.
...... Justin ignored the stare, pulled back the hood of his cloak, and ran his fingers through his wet hair. Rainwater ran off of his face to drip onto the already soaked fabric. Sniffing, he rubbed his nose, while he stolidly waited.
...... The guard shrugged, then walked forward to the packhorse. Ignoring the woman who held on to one of the tie ropes, her eyes looking down at the mud of the path, the guard sized up the load.
...... "Eight coppers for the goods," the guard demanded. He held out his paunchy hand for the fee.
...... "And for myself and my woman?" Justin slowly reached for the pouch on his belt, his expression that of wary suspicion.
...... "We charge only for valuables." The guard turned his head to spit beside the trail. "You and the woman cross free."
...... Watched by both guards, Justin slowly counted out the coins and gave them to the inspector. Finished, he carefully put the pouch away on his belt, then flipped the shawl back around his face.
...... The man only glanced at the coins in his hand, before gesturing toward the bridge. "See that you're over the next hill by midmorning," he brusquely ordered, turning back to the shelter of the guard post.
...... Pulling his hood over his head, Justin tugged on the leather lead and marched out onto the bridge, followed by the packhorse and the woman. As the brilliant Candle light shrank in the distance, he speeded his walk, slipping occasionally on the wet vegetation. The rain diminished, then stopped, as the small mountain storm blew away with the fast moving clouds.
...... They both were laughing, as they jogged off the end of the bridge onto the muddy trail. She unwound the shawl from her face and tossed back her hood. In a burst of speed, she dashed past him and took the lead up the steep incline of the path.
...... Nearly to the top of the hill, Justin suddenly stopped. "Maybe it's not a hotspring, but I do hear a spring." Pulling the packhorse behind him, he floundered through the thick undergrowth to a small brook. "Okay?"
...... Slipping past the packhorse to the water's edge, she quickly looked around. "Okay," she agreed.
...... While he unloaded the tradegoods, she unpacked the camping gear, set up the tent, and started a small campfire. In the shelter of the tent, she unrolled the two bedrolls, then shook her head and redid the blankets as one big bed. By the time he had returned with a bucket of drinking water, she had the stewpot set out to warm and was sitting on a fallen log, pulling off her boots.
...... Ignoring him, she removed her cloak and scarf, hung them over a tent rope, then pulled off the coarse dress. Carefully shaking it out, she hung it next to the cloak.
...... Putting the bucket down beside the fire, he released the bundle he had under his arm and held it out. "Your own clothes," he explained.
...... Still wet from the last of the rain, she stood motionless in the flickering firelight, tugging at her thick, blonde braid, considering. Slowly, she turned to look over her shoulder at the huge mound of blankets inside the tent. Turning back, she grinned. "Don't bother."

* * *

...... Seated at her tiny worktable aboard ship, Lady Xyly put the letter aside, its ink still damp. She impatiently shoved a paperweight onto it, a thick metal ring.
...... "Wherever can that girl be?" she mused aloud, picking up the pen to toy with it. "She should have been at Center by now. Or near enough. At least, well on her way." She put the pen down, and pushed the sand container next to it to stop it from rolling with the movement of the ship. "It's important to her future, and she knows it. What possibly could've induced her to hesitate? Where is that woman!" With a quick motion she stroked the Candle, turning it down to quarter light.
...... "Willi!" she shouted through the open doorway, without moving from her place behind her worktable.
...... "What now?" he demanded, sticking his head over the upper hatchway sill. His damp hair was mussed, and he held a comb in one hand. "I was on my way to bed. I don't keep late nights, puzzling over crazy schemes."
...... She ignored the criticism, shoving the pen back into its holder. "I need to go to the Grand Bazaar."
...... "I know better than to ever ask why," he grumbled, following with a long sigh. "Immediately?"
...... "As soon as we can." She waved it away with an brusque gesture. "Is it still raining?"
...... "Right at this single moment, no." He ran the comb through his hair twice. "I suppose we might as well go now," he conceded. "I've wanted to survey the area between here and the Bazaar sometime, anyway." With another long sigh, he ducked back out of the hatch opening. "I'll have the helmsman shift the course. And the cook fix me a midnight snack!" His final words were indistinguishable in the distance.
...... Xyly pulled a fresh sheet of paper from the box and picked up the pen again. "Misty has got to be somewhere in the area near the Grand Bazaar. She can't have traveled very far, since that last letter." She again stroked the Candle to bring it back to full brightness. "There's nowhere else that woman can be!"
...... Tossing the pen down and folding her arms, she glared at the hull timbers which made up the sidewall of her tiny cabin. She started to stand, then sat down again, pushing her small seat to a different place. Finally, she reached for several more sheets of blank paper.
...... "I'll have to put a stop to all this. It's taken on a plot of its own. And I for one simply don't know why!" She dipped the pen in the inkwell, then paused. Suddenly, she threw it down and leaned back, folding her arms again. "And now that little white-haired troublemaker of mine has managed to get me talking to myself!"

chapter seven CHAPTER EIGHT chapter nine

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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!)

Copyright 2019 RK&A/Web8, Lonaconing, Md. -