Chapter Nine
Sea of Trees


...... Justin stood scowling at the object at his feet. "Offspring of three pigeons and a sundial! Deserved of an incontinent goat's attentions! Eleven sandfleas and a maggot on a pineapple tree!" He angrily slapped the end of the packhorse's tether on the palm of one hand.
...... "A sundial? What's that?" she inquired, picking three apples from the tree above her head. "This here is a lucky find, anyway. For me, at least."
...... He waved it away with a peremptory gesture. "There's going to be some very unhappy bureaucrats, when I get my hands on them. Unhappy for the entire duration of their truncated lives! The uncured hides market will be flooded." He took a deep breath, then slowly let it out again, swinging the tether in a small circle with one hand.
...... Clutching a large, ripe apple, Misty sauntered over to sit giggling on a fallen tree trunk beside a minuscule brook at the edge of the tiny clearing. She kicked idly at the moss beneath her feet.
...... "Do I dare ask what's wrong?" she requested, biting a chunk from the apple. "Isn't this what we left the trail to look for? Well, we found it." Suddenly, she ducked her head, as the leaves above her dumped their rainwater directly on her.
...... Obviously disgusted, he kicked at the half-buried, gray stone object. "This . . . thing . . . is what's wrong!" His boot sole left a long, muddy, scuffmark, which slowly faded as it was washed away by the slow drizzle.
...... She peered over at it, shrugged, and continued eating.
...... Turning, he glanced at her, then scowled at the packhorse. "Why didn't I expect something like this?" Brusquely, he motioned toward the large stone. "I should have, but I didn't. Why didn't I?" Anger in his gesture, he ran his hand over his dripping hair. "I certainly should know what to expect by now!" he loudly declared.
...... The packhorse turned away, jerking the tether from his hand. Reaching down, it grazed in a tiny patch of bright green ferns.
...... "May I interrupt your argument with yourself?" she laughed, tilting her head. "Can I assume from this monologue that you didn't find here what it is you want?" She finished the apple and set the core down beside her.
...... He gave the stone a final kick, leaving another long scar of mud on its dull gray surface, before stalking away. "Might I have that done in bronze, and mounted for eternity here on a marble tablet?" He stooped to retrieve the leather lead and yanked on it. The packhorse ignored him, intent on its meal of greenery.
...... "And I certainly know of one organization which is going to get a total, drastic overhaul. Starting right at the top!" he finished with a second jerk on the tether. He paused to look around the clearing, then glared upward at the dripping branches overhead. "Such a lovely vacation spot this is. That's how this breathable swamp was described to me!"
...... Trying unsuccessfully to eat another apple between bursts of giggles, she used it for a brushing-away gesture. "So now what?" she finally managed to ask. "Here! Have an apple." She tossed it at him.
...... He caught the projectile with a long stretch of his arm. "Would you happen to know where I can sell a packhorse? I don't think I'm going to be needing one for much longer."
...... Laughing and shaking her head, she left her makeshift seat to walk over to the stone, taking the third fruit with her. "This looks like a nice find to me. Even if it isn't what you were expecting." She quickly glanced back at him. "But doesn't this still mean you've reached the end of your quest?"
...... "Not exactly." He scowled upward again, as the wind drove a fragment of the downpour through the tree limbs above. Then he bit into the fruit.
...... "Well, what you've found is the biggest Repeller Stone I've ever seen. It's not active, but it's live." She pushed at the stone with her own boot, while she chewed on the apple. "When it's activated, it'll float a very large ship. I'd assumed that all of them had been found by now, but obviously, I was wrong." She hesitated, looking away into the forest.
...... "I did not hike all this way to find a Repeller Stone!" He scowled in the direction in which she was looking, then turned to glower once again at the packhorse. "And those people, the ones who guaranteed me that this was the right place, and that this easy canter through the forest was the correct way to approach it. They now have some very complicated explaining to do. Very complicated and very difficult!" With a morose expression, he absently ate the apple.
...... After a few silent minutes, she turned away from the stone. "Just what does this ritual object . . . the thing you're looking for, actually look like?" Finished with the fruit, she dug a furrow in the wet earth with her boot and dropped the core in, covering it again. "There. Now another apple tree someday. I wonder who was here, way back ago? Anyway, he or she must have eaten an apple."
...... "It's about ten times the size of that thing," he listed, adding a rapid gesture toward the gray stone. "Fully faceted, and smooth surfaced. An opaque, glossy, pure white in appearance. And fully operating," he added in disgust. Finished eating, he also buried the core in the mud. "Two apple trees. For anybody unfortunate enough to find this place again!"
...... She stared at him for a long moment. "The Master Crystal," she finally said in a surprised tone.
...... He screwed his face into a distorted grimace, then sat on the fallen log which she had vacated. "The what?" he asked in a flat tone. He looked at the tether in his hand and tossed it away to drag on the wet ground. The packhorse drifted back to the fern bed.
...... "The Master Crystal," she repeated. "That's exactly what it looks like. Your description, I mean." She paused to smooth a wrinkle out of one soaked pant leg. "It's at the Temple. The Temple of the Guild of the White Witches. At Center." Suddenly, she looked up. "Now I know why you described your travels as a mystical thing. You wanted to find the Crystal at Center."
...... He stared at the muddy ground, then sighed deeply before standing. "So it seems. And that's where you're planing to go. To this temple at Center."
...... "And it looks like I'll be traveling with you now," she agreed. She took a few steps forward, tugging on her braid. "And if you think I'm going to complain, you ought to know by now that I'm not. You have spoiled me forever for another lover."
...... He waved a hand in gesture and started to speak.
...... "Yes I know," she continued over him. "This has to end. But I'll gladly accept any reprieve, no matter how short. I want to make love with you as many times as I can. Store up memories for when I lose you. As I must." Tossing her braid back over her shoulder, she walked up and wrapped her arms around him.
...... He hugged her, while shaking his head. "For that reason alone, this mistake does have its redeeming value." He gently patted her on the back. "And I'm not in any hurry myself. No more schedule. And, as you said before, it's a long walk to Center, wherever that place is."
...... "Much too long a walk to walk," she agreed, looking up at him. She quickly kissed him and pulled away.
...... He let go but kept an arm around her shoulders. "Onto the practicalities. I wasn't expecting this kind of detour, so I don't have enough supplies or funds for sailing long distances. Particularly, with a horse as extra cargo. Therefore, it'll be necessary to work my way, as a weaponsmith."
...... "Actually, I seem to have a similar state of affairs," she allowed, shoving her fingers under his belt as a handhold.
...... He caught sight of the grazing packhorse and frowned. "On the other hand, I could always sell that worthless, four-legged, animate tent floor." He stared at the loaded packhorse in silence for a moment. "Your people use horses to pull wagons and plows, don't they? I think that overweight nag would look exquisite, hitched to an old plow and tramping the mud, while some farmer beats him with a whip. Preferably a large whip!"
...... "Oh, leave the poor beast alone," she lightly demanded, laughing. She motioned toward the stone with her free hand. "What about that? Should I activate it? We could tow it along behind us, until we got somewhere we could sell it. It'd be worth quite a bit."
...... He peered at the stone with an expression of deep distaste. "No doubt! But, considering the trouble you have with those tree-sailing ships right now, do you want to add another vessel to the fleet? Is the money worth that much?"
...... "On second thought, I think I'll just leave it where it is." She released his belt and tugged on his arm. "So it's agreed. We'll work our way. It's not too likely anyone is going to find that thing. Not for another hundred years or more."
...... Slipping from her grip, he chased down the leather lead and gestured with it. "Shall we go?
...... Hurrying, she went to the tree to harvest a load of ripe fruit and to stow it with the tradegoods. "Now, shall we go?" she repeated.
...... "Since apparently, I'm not due to receive any kind of situation-saving miracle, I suppose we might as well." He turned to push his way through the heavy undergrowth, back to the main trail. "By the way, just for my own personal curiosity, you understand. Precisely, where are we going?"
...... "I thought that would be obvious, even to a man," she retorted from behind him. She paused to push a branch out of her way -- it broke with a loud snap. "To the Grand Bazaar, of course! Where else can we make enough money for our ship tickets?"

* * *

...... That morning brought a sudden thunderstorm -- lightning and deluging rain and gale winds, which heaved and tore at the ship's rigging. Willi climbed up out of the hatch, his two-handed grip tight on the slender rope which acted as the lifeline. Huge raindrops, mixed with hail, were slamming onto the deck and bouncing, while the running rigging dripped down on the crew in continuous streams.
...... He gestured to the woman at the wheel. "How is . . . ?" he shouted over the noise of the storm.
...... With a very loud crack, the forward mast broke in the middle of the first stand and fell over the side of the ship in a wild snarl of ropes. "That answers that," he decided.
...... Crewmembers raced past him on the rain-slick deck to haul down all of the sail, as the ship turned to starboard, out of control.
...... Xyly pushed past him at the hatchway sill and quickly looked around the deck. "At least no one's hurt," she pointed out. Her shirt and pants slowly darkened, as rainwater soaked in.
...... The crew was at work already on the necessary salvage operations, cutting away the knotted ropes and dumping the damaged wood over the side, out of the way.
...... "So I won't complain about my luck," Willi agreed with an extravagant gesture. "There's a spare in the hold, which'll work as a jury mast. But it'll take all day to clean up this mess and fish the new one. Today and most of tomorrow, if this storm doesn't let up soon." He peered over the rail at the ridge crest beyond. "I hope you're in no hurry to reach the Bazaar."
...... "You'll think of something to complain about," she retorted, striding toward the quarterdeck. "I surely can count on that." Pausing, she glanced at the crew's slow progress. "And, as must be obvious, my own hurry no longer matters now."

* * *

...... The gray light had long since vanished from the gray-clouded sky, and the bright flickers of the campfire threw red-yellow reflections from the wet vegetation. The last squall had passed through, to leave slowly drying, erosion cuts in the ground among the trees. The odor of swamp wafted up from the ravine below.
...... Misty shook the last of the dishwater out of the two wood bowls, gathered up the other, freshly washed utensils, and put them all away in their fabric carrier, ready for the next morning's packing. Sitting beside the fire on a folded blanket which covered a few, newly cut, leafy branches for cushioning, she nibbled on a piece of spicy sausage and stared out at the diffused, colored lamplights from the tents which could be glimpsed between the trees in the distance. The clatter of people moving about echoed across the gully.
...... From his seat on the edge of a pair of rocks a few yards away, Justin quickly glanced at her, then returned his attention to his knife, as he continued to shave a dry piece of firewood into kindling for future cookfires. The partly full stew kettle had been set aside on a level stone to cool, and a teapot now hung steaming over the crackling campfire.
...... "Do you know what I'm thinking about right now?" She waved the last of the sausage in a half-circle, before eating it. "I have an idea."
...... Without looking up, he paused in his manufacturing operation. "For some reason, I suspect it's the same idea you had last night." After a moment, he added, chuckling: "And the night before . . . and the night before that, and . . . ." He shoveled a pile of kindling into a large leather bag.
...... "Oh keep quiet!" she laughed, looking back over her shoulder. "That's not what I'm thinking about. Right now, anyway." She wiped her greasy fingers on the scrap of fabric which she had been using for a dish towel. "Give me another hour to let dinner settle, and then that's what I'll be thinking about. If you're up to it, that is." Absently, she inspected her pants in the firelight and brushed at one of the many dark dirt stains.
...... "I'll have to check my appointment book, but I think this evening, I'm scheduled to have a headache." Shoving his knife back into its roughly constructed sheath, he laid it aside, along with the kindling bag. He stood to stretch, then yawned.
...... "It's not that end which takes care of my needs," she retorted in a low tone. Leaning on one hand, she twisted around to wave her eyelashes at him.
...... He looked over at her, then glanced up at foliage, cleared his throat, and looked away toward the lights in the trees. He idly kicked at a stray piece of kindling, which had escaped from its intended container.
...... "You . . . !" she snapped, jerking back around. "Okay. All right!" she laughed.
...... "Not to change the subject, but what is your other idea?" he requested, laughing with her. He sat on a different spot on the rocks, settling to a comfortable position.
...... "That caravan down there." She leaned forward, with the cushioning branches creaking and snapping beneath her, and motioned to the distant lamps. "It's been on the trail ahead of us all afternoon. I think it'd be worth our while to join it."
...... "Okay. Why?" He folded his arms across his chest, then immediately unfolded them. The kindling bag had started to roll along the rocks, and he reached out to stop it.
...... "Because, I'll bet it's going to the Bazaar. This close, it won't be all that expensive, and we'll remake the cost easy enough while we're there." She pulled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them to rest her chin on her knees and peer into the gloom at the twinkling lamps.
...... "I gather you think it'd be okay." His voice was dubious, as he patted the kindling bag into a new position and pushed the sheathed knife under it to brace it.
...... "I don't see why not." She released one hand long enough to gesture, paused for a minute, then sighed. "They have cooks, who do meals for the entire camp. And I desperately want a decent hot meal." She scowled at the campfire. "A meal which isn't stew!"
...... "It's okay by me," he offered, then looked up at the leaves above him as a shower of stray drops landed on him. "What I was wondering about . . . you may be recognized."
...... She nodded, before putting her chin back on her knees. "I think that'd be all right. Those people won't turn me in for a reward of any size. They'd be much too afraid that they wouldn't be paid." She looked up at the branches above her, then brushed water off of her head. "And most likely, they wouldn't be."
...... "I suspect they avoid contact of any kind with authority." He scowled at the foliage again. "It would reduce the chance of us meeting up with outlaws from some village around here.
...... She gestured agreement. "The world above the trees . . . meaning the ships and the Estates which support them . . . is a suspect world. None of their concern, according to them." A stick in the fire split with a loud crack and tossed a hot ember onto the ground beyond the ring of stones. She watched the glowing fragment until it died out. "I think at daybreak I'll go down there and try a bargain with the caravan leader."
...... "That may not be necessary." Standing, he checked the whereabouts of his sword, which leaned against a rock, a few feet from him. Gesturing into the distance, he pointed to a bright, flickering light, which rapidly was becoming brighter.
...... Accompanied by a crunching of broken shrubbery branches and the clatter of rolling pebbles on the trail across the gully, three people marched up the narrow path toward them.
...... The first was a small, rag-clothed boy, who carried a stump candle in a shell-windowed brass lantern which hung from a pole. Behind him came a heavily muscled, tall man with a sword strapped to his back -- equally raggedly clothed, and obviously a hired swordsman who acted as caravan guard.
...... The last of the group was a small, fat man with sharp dark eyes and a bald head which was speckled with rainwater.
...... Motioning to his retinue to wait in the distance, the fat man approached the campfire, his hands swinging loosely by his sides. He carried no visible weapons. Behind him, the guard hefted his bulk onto a convenient boulder, while the boy propped his lantern in the crook of a tree and hunkered down to fiddle with his boot.
...... "Respects to you, fellow travelers of the road," the man began, when he had reached the light from the small fire. He looked quickly around, an experienced glance of appraisal. "I am Ferntc, organizer and leader of the caravan which now shares this interminable forest trail with you." He bowed quickly, then motioned behind him. "My men noticed you on the path late this afternoon. Are you . . . ?"
...... He suddenly paused, for the first time clearly seeing them. "Are you also traveling to the Grand Bazaar?" he finished in a stilted tone. Stepping another pace forward to face her, he again bowed. "I believe you must be the Scribe, who Mola told me about." He tilted his head to peer carefully at her, then quickly went on in an embarrassed voice. "I must thank you for your help to Mola at that time."
...... Misty unfolded her arms and legs to sit crosslegged beside the fire. She nodded, as a formal acknowledgement of the courtesy. Reflections of the red flame danced along her braid, which had fallen forward. The fire hissed, as another sprinkling of displaced raindrops showered across them all.
...... "Oh! Let me explain," the man went on, ignoring the new droplets which ran along his baldness. He gestured toward himself. "I am Mola's business partner. It was to me you were so kind as to send that letter. Please, do let me thank you."
...... As unobtrusively as possible, Justin strapped his sword to his back. He sauntered to the campfire to stand behind her. Gesturing to the teapot, he suggested: "Would you and your men care for a hot drink? Please be seated. I apologize for the lack of amenities here."
...... The fat man shook his head and quickly bowed again. "I must thank you very much for your kind offer, but with the business of the caravan to attend to, I do not at present have the time. Yes, thank you very much, anyway."
...... He paused to recover his train of thought, wiping at the water droplets on his head. "What I came for . . . I must offer to you and your companion or companions, my services . . . that of the caravan. It is two days to the Grand Bazaar. If you avail yourselves of my services, you would be much more comfortable, as well as safer. Particularly, since you are traveling so lightly."
...... "We've vaguely considered it. We discussed it casually, while we were traveling this afternoon. But it's far too expensive for small traders like us." Misty turned sideways to add a few more sticks of firewood to the flames. "Robbers aren't going to bother us. We have too little, and robbing us would make too much noise. They'd ignore us, while they waited for larger, richer groups."
...... "No, no. Not expensive at all!" the man argued instantly. He glanced at Justin, then squatted down to address her. "It so happens that one of our party dropped out at the last village. I have two extra tents vacant. Also food for five more animals. Fuel and other conveniences."
...... She steepled her arms on her knees and rested her chin on her hands, head thoughtfully tilted. From the caravan camp across the ravine, a goat squalled at its lot in life.
...... "And, no outlaws would dare disturb us," the man continued, speaking fast. "All of the warriors, who are traveling with us, are organized into a defense group." He peered up at Justin once more, sizing him up. "No bandits would risk it."
...... "Also, my master cook is the best in this part of the forest," the man continued, returning his attention to her. He paused to consider her appearance carefully. "Whenever and wherever the caravan stops for the night, within half an hour the kitchen always has a plentiful supply of very hot water," he added in the tone of an afterthought.
...... Unconsciously, she ran her fingers across the smear of dirt on her right cheek. "Hot water?" she repeated, tugging on her braid.
...... Justin watched the lights beyond the waiting guard and the boy, listening with only half his attention to the ensuing ten minutes of sharp bargaining. Then, the fat man stood up and nodded his reluctant agreement. Bowing, he thanked them again and waddled down the mud of the trail, followed closely by his retainers. The breeze had died away, and the rain began once more as a fine drizzle. The candle-stump light merged with the distant, twinkling lamps.
...... "I presume that you concluded a deal?" he inquired, sitting beside her. He put his arm across her shoulders. "Would you care for some tea now?"
...... "Yes, please. And I got very good value." She tugged on her braid one more time, realized what she was doing, and tossed it back over her shoulder. "We join the caravan at daybreak."
...... "I expected nothing less." He quickly hugged her, then slid a few feet over. Folding a short length of cloth into a pad, he took down the teapot and poured the dark blue beverage into two crudely fashioned, clay mugs. "But you sound a slight bit defensive," he teased, hanging the teapot back over the campfire.
...... "I am defensive! He obviously knew just how much two of his words meant to me." She accepted one mug and swirled the liquid, watching the steam wisp out.
...... "Hot water," he chuckled, moving back beside her, with the other mug clutched in his hand.
...... She looked up from her own cup. "Right at this moment, I'd give up you for a hot bath!"
...... He laughed and drank his tea, then suddenly scowled upward, as another burst of water pelted down on them -- the rain was increasing. Slowly, the noise from the distant caravan camp faded away, until only the wind in the trees and the constant dripping of rainwater metered out the silence.
...... She peered upward, then ostentatiously looked over, slowly running the tip of her tongue across her lips. "However. That hot bath won't be available until tomorrow night. And, as for you . . . ."
...... Carefully holding the mug of tea, she stood and ambled to the tent. Stopping in front, with the door flap shoved out of the way and the teacup balanced in one hand, she crooked a finger at him.
...... He tossed more wood on the fire, gulped down the last of his portion, and answered the summons.

chapter eight CHAPTER NINE chapter ten

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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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