Chapter Ten
Sea of Trees

... WITHOUT FURTHER TRAVEL ...

...... By the time the gray sky was fully lit with morning, the narrow, trampled path was packed to capacity with walking people, nearly all of them carrying some sort of shoulder-hung sack or bag. Men, women, children of all sizes -- everyone was engaged in the transport of necessities, small amenities, and most importantly, tradegoods. The rain pattered down uniformly over all.
...... Carrying a knapsack strapped over his two swords, Justin hurried ahead, whenever the trail widened enough to allow him to pass other travelers. In time, he caught up with a small boy, who was carrying a bundle which he recognized. A moment later, when the trail turned rocky and widened slightly, he ran past, then slowed to walk beside her.
...... "Who's the small one?" he inquired, one hand shoved under a shoulder strap to shift the burden off of a sore spot. "I didn't know you were that kind of woman." He stepped over a loose rock, then kicked it safely off of the trail.
...... Misty giggled. "He comes with the basic caravan fee. If I send him away, he'll be insulted. This's what he does to earn his living." She swung a big satchel to her other shoulder and took his hand. "Also, he's Ferntc's nephew. Some people respect White Witches," she teased, mimicking an insulted tone. "How's the packhorse?"
...... "Stumbling along in a long line of other horses, all of them similarly loaded." As the trail narrowed, he released her hand and dropped back behind her. "I seem to own this world's only sullen pack animal. But he'll be okay." He paused to watch his footing on a gravel area. "Your first set of reluctant hosts didn't show much respect for witches."
...... She pushed a broken shrub branch out of her way. "You take remarkably good care of that animal, considering how you appear to dislike it so much." She looked back over her shoulder but turned in time to shove another low-hanging tree branch out of the way. "Those dumb Outlaw villagers caught me before they knew who I was. Otherwise, they'd never have dared to touch me. White Witches have a reputation for doing nasty things to people who cause them trouble. But by then, it was too late, and they didn't know quite what to do with me."
...... "So they solved their problem by fobbing you off on me. They looked at you, then at me, and thought: Here's a man dumb enough for anything." Catching the limb and holding it out of his way, he looked back at the small boy, judged the height, and let go. The branch swished a foot over the youngster's head, but the child didn't bother to look up.
...... "I have to take care of that fleabitten nag," he continued, carefully skirting a mudpuddle in the middle of the path. "That overgrown reel of rawhide is the only chance I have for a pension." He shifted his grip on the knapsack strap. "Given the off chance that I survive this trip!"
...... "Don't worry about a pension, Justin. After all, with your adventurous life, you'll most likely die in bed." She was laughing, as she splashed through a shallow brook. "Why didn't you leave that poor packhorse home with your relatives? Don't you miss being with your own kind?"
...... He stretched to reach a small rock in the center of the brook and crossed without soaking his boots. "Courtesy of you, that's probably correct. I will die in bed, and most likely within the week." He hefted the pack higher on his shoulders. "I don't have any relatives to leave him with. Even at what I nominally call home, I'm not really with my own kind." Hearing an increase in the bustle behind him, he glanced back over his shoulder. "And here I thought you'd be constantly daydreaming about your future hot bath."
...... The pace of the caravan had slowed, and he adjusted his walk to her speed. Her braid was hanging loose and bouncing along her shirt, rocking in time with the swing of her hips. He watched the motion of her slim body, as it strained the crude stitching of her clothes, took a deep breath and tugged at a knapsack strap, then looked upward at the foliage and slowly shook his head. Finally, he shrugged.
...... "I alternate daydreams," she answered, peering quickly back over her shoulder. "But I did check on that promise of hot water, right at daybreak today. The two old ladies, who run that concession, are now expecting me half an hour after the caravan stops for the night." For a moment, she looked at him with narrowed eyes. "Sorry, you can't do my hair for me, this time."
...... He grinned. "You'll think of something else."
...... Hearing more clearly the jingle of small bells, he again looked behind him and saw another young boy running past the marching column -- one of the messengers of the caravan. Their small, hired servant offered a wave of the hand, as the messenger edged past him.
...... When the youngster caught up with them, Justin stopped for a moment to give the hurrying child room to pass. Misty also stopped, her hand braced against a tree trunk. Once the young messenger had dashed past in his clatter of bells, she started forward again. In a short time, the trail widened, and Justin hurried to walk beside her.
...... "They'll also see that my clothes are washed." Reaching out, she tugged at his shirt sleeve. "A service I'd highly recommend for you also. We'll be eating late tonight. And, if the water's truly hot, very late tonight!"
...... He rubbed his dirty palms against his pants. "Clean laundry is something I certainly want to see about. Cold mountain pools aren't much for washing in. I want clean clothes, nearly as much as you want a bath." He dropped back, when the path narrowed. "And dinner can be whenever you're ready. Have a good time."
...... "I most certainly will!" she laughed. "I love playing in hot, soapy water. I always have!"
...... The marchers ahead were slowing to a stop, and she stopped right behind them. Justin stood behind her, idly kicking at the mud of the trail. The rain had let up to the finest of drizzles -- the trees dripped only in slow drops.
...... "In that way, I'm different from most of my people." She moved the satchel from one shoulder to the other. "Even when I was a child, I liked playing in water. When the geese were safe in their pen, I'd volunteer to do the laundry." She quickly glanced at him and giggled. "Actually, I'd dump all my clothes, jump into the big tub, and wash everything by splashing it around!"
...... He softly chuckled without comment.
...... "And, most of the time, my tutor would see me and drag me out. Things like that aren't done by a young lady of my class." She began to laugh uproariously. "If my poor tutor only knew what I was doing now!"
...... The people ahead started moving forward again. She waited a moment to let a gap open, then followed. "Which is why I ended up doing the brewery. She knew I wouldn't be cavorting in a vat of cold beer."
...... "Then she's more trusting than I'd be," he countered, pulling his knapsack into a better position and following. "It is nice to see you lusting after something other than me."
...... Glancing over her shoulder, she licked her lips. "You're still on the list. Somewhere! What I'm really lusting for, is a good meal. Not that I despise your cooking, but, did I ever tell you that you made a good stew?"
...... "Not that I remember," he replied dryly.
...... "I never will, either!" she laughed.

* * *

...... At the darker gray of twilight, when the caravan had stopped for the night next to a fast-moving stream at the bottom of a narrow valley, Justin selected a secluded campsite somewhat up the ridge, where they could look down on the lights of the main encampment. A tiny brook bubbled alongside and wandered its way down to the stream.
...... After unpacking the tradegoods and equipment, setting up the small tent, and arranging their few belongings for convenience, they left the camp and the packhorse in the competent hands of their small, temporary servant -- wandering down the path to the main area housing the caravan.
...... They stopped in front of a large enclosure, which had been fabricated by stretching ropes between tree trunks and tying large panels of coarse, colored cloth along the ropes. Wax candles, inside a motley collection of lanterns, spread a dim yellow light on the entrance. An old woman was standing behind a tiny table, assembled from a nearby rock, one keg, and a single thin plank. The old woman looked up and smiled in recognition.
...... "What are you going to do?" Misty turned to ask.
...... "I'm going to attend a gathering requested by the caravan leaders. Something about meeting the other swordsmen." He gestured, palm up. "Who knows? I'll be waiting near the kitchens, whenever you're ready. You have a nice time. And take your time. All you want."
...... "You can be sure of that!" She glanced behind, as another woman brushed past and stopped at the makeshift desk. She kissed him quickly, before vanishing into the entrance and its maze of fabric walls.
...... An hour later, sitting on a rain-sheltered outcropping near the kitchens, he patiently waited, while sharpening several of his stock knives. The damp, freshly-cleaned leather of his sleeves clung to his arms and impeded the careful movement of the blade on the whetstone. The wind carried appetizing scents from the dining area, along with the rattle of crockery and the scuffle of people moving around.
...... "Ready?"
...... He looked up to find her standing two yards away. Her own leather clothes clung tightly and were creased from a fast, partial drying. Her wet braid swung heavily along her shoulder.
...... He put the stone away in its container, packed the knives back into a shoulder carrier, and stood up. "Water too cold?" he suggested, chuckling.
...... She shook her head. "My stomach was too empty." Crooking her index finger, she trotted toward the press of people, who surrounded the three buffet tables which had been set up under awnings in a long line between intervening tree trunks. "But I put in another reservation for tomorrow night!" she tossed back over her shoulder.
...... Beyond the throng of jostling diners, four cooks were moving hurriedly around innumerable steaming kettles and pans, propped over the six large cookfires which illuminated the serving tables. Their several helpers were pushing through the crowd toward the tables, each holding a huge tray of food above his or her head.
...... Throughout the dining area which was lit by more wax candles in odd-appearing lanterns, people were seated on rocks, fallen tree trunks, folding stools, small cushions, and directly on the damp ground. All of them were eating rapidly from large plates piled high with their selections, ignoring the constant drip of rainwater from the overhead leaves.
...... Following the first slow line to one of the tables, Justin acquired a heavy metal plate from the stack of mismatched dishes and carefully selected tiny portions of everything available at that table. Still moving with the crowd, he drifted to an outlying slab of rock, beyond the candle-lit area and partly sheltered from the rain, which he could use as a combination table and seat.
...... A minute later, Misty emerged from the crowd, holding a large plate of vegetables. Standing on tiptoe, she looked around, saw him at the edge of the illuminated circle, and sauntered over, already nibbling on a boiled onion which she held in her fingers.
...... "I thought you liked chicken," he remarked, biting into a chicken wing. He turned the morsel sideways to catch the thick, dripping, white sauce.
...... Her mouth stuffed, she merely stopped chewing long enough to smile and shrug. She sat down next to him, nudging him over for more room on the flat stone.
...... "I was wondering," he began between bites. "You describe yourself as a White Witch. Are there other colors?" Finished with the stewed chicken wing, he studied a large, roasted drumstick, obviously from a bird he had never seen before. He sniffed at it, then bit off a large section, stopping only long enough to nod his approval.
...... "This is only the first course," she advised between large swallows, as she scooped away at the teetering pile of steamed and fried vegetables. "There are the White Witches of the Temple, like me, called that because the Temple at Center is built of fitted white stones. Then there are the other just plain witches. No other designation. Those other witches are frowned upon by the Guild."
...... He ate slowly and was less than halfway through the pile of food on his plate, when she jumped down from the rock seat, her empty platter in her hand. "Don't go away," she called, as she hurried toward the lines at the tables. Her rain-spotted leather garments had finished drying and were molded to her figure.
...... He paused to watch her, until she vanished into the crowd. "I won't dignify that with an answer," he murmured, biting into a nicely browned, roll of bread, which was filled with highly spiced, ground meat.
...... She returned, a few minutes later, with two legs of roasted goose, sitting on a mound of gravy-soaked stuffing. "Reminds me of home," she said, biting into the first leg.
...... "How so?" He finished the rolled bread and picked up a layered concoction of cheese and meat.
...... "One of my chores was looking after a mangy flock of geese. Dozens of the creatures. And they were a pain!" She chewed the bone bare and licked thick gravy from her fingers. "Now, this is my revenge." She paused to look at the trees beyond the other diners. "Long ago . . . quite a way away." Waving the second drumstick, she added: "Any more questions? Don't forget our agreement. You were asking about the Guild."
...... "I was wondering about the ones you call the other witches. "Who and what are they?" Unexpectedly, he burped. "Excuse me. My first decent meal in I-don't-know how long. I can't say I really liked my own traveler's stew." Glancing down at his empty plate, he picked up one last dab of sauce on his fingertip and licked it off. "I just may have slightly overeaten."
...... "In the Guild, after careful selection and training, one becomes a White Witch and has unlimited access to the power of the Master Crystal. One has to pass tests by an examination board all along the time," she explained between bites. "But sometimes, other people . . . just plain people, accidentally learn how to manipulate some of the Crystal's facets. Their lack of training and often times other defects are dangerous, so we quickly locate them and discourage them from continuing that kind of infringing." She stopped to lick away a dribble of gravy at the edge of her hand, while watching one of the cooks' helpers replace candles in the nearby lanterns. "It's great," she called, lifting her plate in gesture.
...... The woman grinned, before hurrying on with her task.
...... "A small group of selected, ascetic, and trained adepts," he quietly mused, putting aside his own empty platter. "So that's how they've kept it from blowing up in their faces."
...... "What did you just say?" she asked idly, looking back. "Oh, the White Witches. Yes, that's how you'd call us, I guess." She wiped her hands and mouth with a damp cloth, then laid it aside. "That stuffing was delicious. Messy, but good ! Although personally, lately, my ascetic mode seems to be slipping." She leaned against him, rubbing shoulders. "Whatcha doin' tonight, Cutie? Or rather, who?" She slid from the rock, her empty plate in her hand.
...... "You need ask?" he laughed. "Another helping?"
...... "Meat and two vegetables," she explained, unsuccessfully suppressing her own laugh. "I had the first vegetables, then the meat, and now I'll have the second vegetables. What can I bring you?" she requested, as she walked away.
...... He raised his voice. "An Alkaseltzer. Also, two aspirin!"
...... Offering a mock scowl and giggling, she waved a hand in an abrupt gesture and sauntered into the thinning crowd around the buffet tables.
...... The kitchen help was gathering up stacks of used platters and taking down the many lanterns, as she finished her meal with a monstrous slice of cake. Justin settled for two pieces of pear-like green fruit and a tall clay beaker of syrup-sweetened bitter tea.
...... After hiking, hand in hand, very slowly uphill to their campsite, they dismissed their small guard to his own home, stoked up the tiny fire, and sat on blankets in the open tent to watch the flickering caravan lamps through wisps of evening fog.
...... "Excuse me," she offered, after a loud burp. She stretched out on one side of the blankets, head on her hands, and burped a second time. "Likewise! After all that, I'm sleepy."
...... "So fall asleep. It is a bed you're lying on." He glanced upward, as the tent walls started to patter with the impact of large raindrops.
...... "But I want to make love with you," she complained, looking out at the diffuse lights. "And I ate too much to be comfortable. By the time I digest dinner, we'll both be asleep!"
...... "I think we might be able to survive a single night, Little One. Both of us," he laughed, leaning back on one elbow. He patted her bottom. "Give me a break. Tomorrow night can be special."
...... "Okay." She rolled to one side and stood up. "Back in a minute," she explained, as she ducked out into the rain.
...... Hauling himself up with a sigh, he strode out into the downpour to do a last few chores. By the time he had returned, she was curled up asleep. He hung his wet clothes to drip along the doorway, then carefully slid in beside her, pulling the single top blanket over both of them.
...... "Nice and warm," she whispered, snuggling against him. "That brook pulls in a cold draft. Where did you go?"
...... He put his arms around her and explained in a flat tone: "I had to have a business conference with my packhorse."
...... Playfully, she hit him in the ribs with her elbow. "Idiot! And move over. You're hogging the blankets." Yawning, she tried to push closer against him. "You did have a good idea there. Special! I must remember, tomorrow." Then she was asleep again.
...... He merely chuckled, tightened his arms around her, and, to the sound of the drumming raindrops, fell asleep himself.

* * *

...... The caravan had stopped early that afternoon, because of the size of the next river. The leadership would not risk splitting the column, with only part of them crossing before nightfall. Mounting two sets of guards, separated by the swiftly moving, mountain stream, did not seem safe.
...... Justin had been shooed out of their campsite up on the ridge by a suddenly energetic Misty. Wandering through the caravan's tent-town, which had been pitched strung out beside the river, he was drafted by the professional guards for a lesson of how to repair and care for weaponry.
...... Advised by their small servant that he was not wanted yet, he accepted an invitation to share the guards' evening meal. Following that, he did some casual trading, worked on an idea of his own, and finished with a long soak at the bath concession. It was there, an hour after nightfall, that their young errandboy found him once more.
...... Carrying several small bundles loosely in his arms, Justin followed the youngster back to his campsite. At a place where the vague path opened out, a husky guard glanced at the boy and the man, then waved his head for them to proceed. Around the corner of a stone outcrop, beyond the informal guard station, was a tinkling brook. Beyond the brook, pitched in the center of a fern-filled clearing, was a large four-walled tent, glowing with the softness of a candelabra inside.
...... Justin halted, simply to stare at the structure and shake his head. The child walked on a few paces, before stopping to look back at him.
...... Fishing two copper coins from his belt, he motioned to the boy. "You're off duty, Mac. See you tomorrow."
...... The youngster grinned and scurried off, back down the path, clutching his unexpected treasure in one grime-stained hand.
...... "Me," he called, approaching the doorway. He ducked past the fabric hanging, which acted as a door curtain, and once again stopped to stare.
...... The inside of the tent was floored with several, thick, colorful carpets. Short stacks of blankets occupied most of the floor space, and on top of those, were more pillows than seemed possible. An elaborate candelabra with nine large wax candles flooded the canvas room with soft yellow light. In one corner, a small brazier acted as a grill.
...... "Just in time for a mug of hot tea," Misty stated, holding a large pot poised over the two, thin, ornate cups which stood on a tiny, three-legged table. "Put all that down somewhere, come over here, and make yourself comfortable."
...... Various odd-shaped packages still clasped in his arms, he just stood and looked at her.
...... The light from the candelabra accented the sheen of her fair skin. Thoroughly washed and combed, her hair had been done up in an elaborate coiffure, encircled by a ring of worked silver. Her eyes had been lightly traced in black, and her lips tinted slightly more red. Long, gold filigree earrings dangled from her ears, and a cloth-of-gold ribbon encircled her neck.
...... "I wanted you to know that you're with someone more than the local goose-girl." Watching him from the corners of her eyes and smiling slightly at her obvious effect, she ran the tip of her tongue along her lips. "Unfortunately, my wardrobe's a hundred miles from here, so . . . ." She gestured toward herself. "Back to the basics."
...... He still stood motionless in front of the doorway, holding the packages, smiling, and looking at her.
...... "Come right over here, Lover." She crooked her index finger at him, her movement making the worked-silver ring scintillate in her hair. "The tea's getting cold."
...... He released a single long breath. "I sure can't say the same for me," he finally answered. "Now I know what people describe as stunning." He motioned with the jumble of packages in his arms. "I've brought a present for you to open."
...... Pursing her lips, she tilted the pot to pour. The teapot shook slightly in her grip and spilled a dark-brown dribble onto the center of the table. She stopped pouring, scowled at the steaming pool, then started to laugh, and finally put the teapot back down. Shaking her head, she fished up a fragment of cloth and wiped up the spill.
...... He also had to laugh. Kicking off his boots, he put his bundles down by the door curtain, picked out two packages, waded across the thick carpeting, and sat on the mound of pillows next to her. Still chuckling, he held out the smaller package.
...... The mound of pillows shifted under him, and he slipped sideways to land on his back, one bare foot just missing the tea table. She put her hands over her face and broke into long peals of laughter.
...... He lay there, frowning at the fabric ceiling. "I guess retrieving pretty goose-girls from mudpuddles is about my speed." He broke into laughter himself.
...... Scrambling around the tea table, she landed on top of him. "Don't worry, my prince. The goose-girl will be back tomorrow." She tilted her head to make the earrings swing. "There's no way I can travel looking like this."
...... "I'm sorry I ruined it all for you." He shoved two pillows out of the way. "You are absolutely gorgeous. And you went to so much trouble to put together this setting . . . which you look absolutely perfect in."
...... "You didn't ruin anything," she countered, holding his head for a long kiss.
...... "Another two seconds, and I would've been grinning," she continued, afterward. "And that always wrecks my sophisticated lady pose. Just a goose-girl at heart," she sighed, catching the edge of his shirt to start tugging at it.
...... "Wait half a minute," he objected, still laughing. "I brought you a present."
...... "And I'm unwrapping it." With the tip of her tongue caught in the corner of her mouth, she yanked at his shirt hem, trying to work it around him to pull it up over his head.
...... Kicking another pillow out of the way, he recovered the two packages which he had dropped. "This one's bad timing." He again held out the smaller one.
...... Still lying on him, she unwrapped it and held it up in the candelabra light. "Another hair clasp! And a very nice one, too. Sorry you can't put it on for me tonight, but you can tomorrow morning." She caught his head again for the next long kiss, then stretched across him to place the clasp carefully on the edge of the tea table.
...... "This one is much better timing." He held out the larger, rectangular package. "But don't ask me how I fabricated it."
...... She unwrapped it and squealed. "A looking-panel! But I never saw one so clear." She held it in one hand and touched her hair with the other.
...... "My people call them mirrors." Holding his head up off of the blankets, he watched her looking at herself. "I thought that you might never have seen yourself the way I see you."
...... "So that's what I really look like." She glanced away to consider him. "But I doubt I see me quite the way you do."
...... "Close enough, Little One." He wrapped his arms around her. "But you're correct too. To me, you're much more beautiful than any mirror can ever show."
...... "Liar!" she teased. Again stretching across him, she gently placed the mirror on the tea table next to the hair clasp. Then she pounced on him.
...... "You'll mess up your beautiful hair," he objected, just before his words were smothered under her kiss.
...... In time, she raised her mouth from his. "No I won't. Tonight, that's your department!"


chapter nine CHAPTER TEN chapter eleven

TO: [ Table of Contents ]

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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