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Next morning we were talking to each other again.

“Did you fix the problem with our defences?” asked Stack.

“Yes,” I mumbled through a deer chop. “I had been slack; I had been so engrossed in our expedition that I had not performed the proper dances or held the proper vigils. I’ve fixed it all now, though. The Spirits around here are on our side – they helped a lot.”

“Why are they on our side?”

“I don’t know – you don’t ask that sort of question outright, not of the Spirits. But the people who live there – the Spirits see them as enemies, so they were glad we defeated them. And…” I paused.

“Why aren’t the Spirits angry that we didn’t kill them?” asked Stack.

“And why didn’t the Spirits kill them themselves?” added Hawk.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If you can.

“I don’t know. But there is something more, something I’m guessing about, just from hints and things.” I paused again. “I think that in the past that was a happy place. I think the Spirits want it to be happy again, and our not shedding blood there helped that in some way. But their plans run deep, deeper than we can know or guess. And I am sure that our visit was planned – the weather, the way we were led off course, the way we were protected all through, the Spirits were behind everything.” I wish they were, I really wish they were. But they’re not. “And why and how they choose to act is not for us to know.”

That shut them up.

We were ready to go, and Stack and I were facing south. Hawk wasn’t.

“I suppose we must go south,” he said.

“Yes of course!” I settled my pack more comfortably – I hadn’t quite got the hang of clothes yet. “We need to go south until we’re back on line for the Power Hills.”

“Yes of course.” Hawk stared into the distance. “But… the people at the farm spoke of Brothy, where they could sell us as slaves on market day. Do you suppose Brothy is a Town?”

Now we were digging into Singer’s lore. There were many tales that talked of Towns, where you could get strange magical things of wondrous beauty. There’s a story of a boy who exchanges a cow for a handful of magic beans; that’s in a Town.

“No idea,” I said. “Are Towns real? I thought they just came in stories.”

“I don’t really know. But wouldn’t this be a chance to find out?”

The path was obvious and easy, and – I was glad to see – deep in the trees on the right flank of a valley. We crossed a stream by a bridge – not just a couple of split tree trunks, but built out of blocks of stone in a curve like a rainbow, and wide enough for the three of us to cross side by side.

Then suddenly we were out of the trees, and the path dropped away before us, leaving us frighteningly exposed. We had a view over a strange land, a land parcelled up into separate patches. Each patch was a different colour; there were shades of green, shades of brown, shades of golden yellow – even a couple that were almost black. The walls that stitched the patches together were all the same dull cold grey, whatever the colours they ran between. I couldn’t understand it: how could you hunt – how could you even live in a land like that?

The path ran on, and now other paths joined it, and it grew wider and warmer and wetter as we sank down to the valley bottom. Then the path itself ran between two of those walls, so that our view on either side was completely blocked, and even ahead we could only see a hundred or so paces, just to the next slight bend. Worst of all was when a path joined ours; anything or anybody could be hiding at the junction.

“I feel trapped,” said Hawk.

Stack nodded. “This is dangerous. I should go first.”

The valley opened out, so that even the distant hills were hidden. There was nothing to see, nothing for the eye to rest on, except those terrible walls. I felt panicky, so I slipped out a couple of my rattles, and shook them as we walked. It helped.

At last there came a change. The walls were still with us, but they were lower, below head height; we could see the far hills and woods again. Paths still joined us, but because we could see over the walls they weren’t frightening any more, even in the afternoon mists. The air was warm down here; I pulled my cloak wide open and began to regret my clothes.

But by now there were other people on the path, and they were all wearing clothes, so I couldn’t shed mine without being conspicuous. Even so, we kept well away from them, and matched our speed to theirs. No point in unnecessary risks.

We crossed a deep fold with a boggy stream idling in its flat bottom, and then up and over a low ridge. The path suddenly changed; instead of black sticky mud it became dry red rottenstone, much easier to walk on – after the mud had flaked off our feet, anyway. The land before us was rocky, patched with more rottenstone and dotted with trees, but beyond it now we could see shapes; oblong shapes like the farm, but not just two – there were twenty at least, that we could see, and there must have been many more hidden in the mist that we couldn’t see. The path ran from our feet right into the middle of them.

“A town!” I exclaimed. “This must be Brothy – and it is a town!”

“I thought it would be tents, like a huge camp!” breathed Hawk. “I never thought of anything like this!”

“There aren’t many people around,” said Stack.

We stopped. “They said three days,” I mused, “but it depends how they count days. They could mean today, tomorrow or the day after.”

“We’re tired,” declared Hawk – inaccurately in my case – “so let’s find somewhere to camp and go on tomorrow morning.” He looked around. “What d’you think of those trees over there, Stack?” he asked, pointing leftwards.

“Possible.” Stack looked at him and then at me. “But that fold we crossed – there were much thicker trees to our right, and it would be more sheltered. If it’s dry.”

“I’m happy,” I said. “But you two are the hunters – you know best.”

So we spent the night in a warm, dry camp, under oak trees. Bliss; except I was worrying about what tomorrow would bring. What was a Town really like? Would we be welcome? Would we look stupid? Would people know we were – no, I am not a savage. I need a word: what marks us out from people like Paedr?

I tried a dozen different words, but in the end I decided on ‘Tent Folk’. We were of the Tent Folk, not the Travelling Folk or – and I was guessing here – the Farm Folk or Town Folk. And I fell asleep.

We woke at sunrise – half dazzled by the rising sun shining directly along the folded ground. Less than an hour later we were back on the path. And it was very different! There was no question of our keeping our distance from other people; it was more a case of finding space to squeeze into among the people carrying huge packs on their backs, or among ponies, like the beasts the Travelling Folk use.

“So this must be market day!” exclaimed Hawk.

“Whatever that is!” answered Stack.

I was too excited to speak.

Soon we were among the houses, and still the people carried us along, until the path opened out into a great space, a great glade among the houses. It was a rough circle, a hundred paces or thereabout across, floored with fine-crushed rottenstone, and surrounded on three sides by houses; to the north a huge stream flowed, thirty paces – yes, thirty paces across! The morning mist hid anything more than a guess of more houses beyond it; it didn’t matter – all the action was here, in this great glade.

There were so many people, so much space, so many different things happening that for a long time we just couldn’t take it in; we wandered round gawping and pointing with our mouths open. Then I noticed some funny looks, and I pulled the others to one side.

“Look,” I said, “we’ve got to be careful. You remember what the people at the farm thought of us; the people here might treat us like that. The Spirits here are strange and unfriendly – I’m getting no help from them at all, and so the people here are probably the same.”

“What are you saying, Seer? That we’re in danger?” Hawk looked round quickly and back to me.

“Nothing that Stack and you can’t handle,” I said quickly. “You’ll be able to fight and win, I’m sure. But we could get driven out of the place – there’s so many people the numbers could sweep us away however well you fight.”

Stack nodded. “I see. We’re hunting, but we’re inside a herd, and so we need to avoid being trampled.”

“Yes!” I exclaimed. “Exactly right!”

Stack looked almost pleased.

“So,” I went on, “we only speak when we’re spoken to, and if we do speak, we don’t call ourselves savages or tribesmen, we’re of the Tent Folk. It sounds better. Yes? And we keep our mouths shut, not hanging open; we don’t exclaim and point at everything; we stay together and walk around slowly until we’re sure we know what’s going on. Yes?”

Stack nodded. Hawk still looked nervous, but he nodded too, in the end.

In the middle of the glade were three very long wooden beams, each tied onto pairs of much shorter beams, like splayed-out legs – about twenty pairs of legs to each beam. The legs were about a pace apart at ground level, and they crossed under the beams at about shoulder height. These legs marked out long rows of stalls for ponies, one row on each side of the beam, with the ponies sideways on, and just enough space between the beams for the crowds to walk by. One by one each stall was filled; one by one each pony’s pack was opened, and the goods displayed to the passing crowds.

And such goods!

Cloths finer and thinner far than what we were wearing; even coloured cloths! Brown, blue, white, yellow, black – breathtaking!

Little clay jars of ointment scented with strange, heady spices that made your head swirl if you stood near them!

Shoes, shiny leather, stitched to fit your feet while you waited, and with patterns hammered into them!

Cloak loops, not leather thongs, but plaited gold wire worked into loops each linked to four or five others like cloth, and finished at each end with a white stone, or a carved shell!

Wooden skewers threaded with cubes of meat, berries, cubes of roots, tiny onions, grilled on charcoal!

Knives, with flint blades as long and thin as a feather, their handles carved with birds or deer or hare or intertwining leaves!

Apples as big as the palm of my hand, and gleaming red and green!

Necklaces of gold and stone and shell, threaded on a string, each bead carved with an animal head, each head with a tiny bright red spark in its eye!

Cloaks of fine deerskin, overstitched with intricate interweaving lines of strange colours that dazzled your eye!

Tiny breads dipped in warm honey and then in powdered nuts, or flower petals, or crushed thyme!

And that was only the beginning! I was drunk, rolling drunk, just with looking!

Hawk touched my arm, and pointed to the other side of the line of stalls, to the land next to the river. We went to look. Here were animals, penned with hazel hurdles against a wooden fence, each with their owner leaning on the fence looking out for buyers. We saw sheep, ponies, and another kind of beast: black, as big as a pony but much solider, with a great slobbery mouth, and huge, swinging udders. They made a sort of ‘moo’ sound. The males were even bigger, with nasty horns, and they were kept one to a pen – and not even next to each other. There were pigs, too, but not our wild kind: these were much finer and in pink or white, and one group were black and white like a magpie.

At the end of the animals there was a special area for dogs. These were all the big black and white kind that we saw on the farm, not the little brown ones that our tribe used to use for sending down burrows before the coughing sickness killed them.

“How do we offer for things?” murmured Hawk.

“Let’s try to get closer,” I murmured back. “Look, that man with the bread is selling very quickly.”

We got as close as we dared, and watched, trying to seem inconspicuous. We saw people come up to him and speak a number: two, say. He would take that many breads – two breads, say – and give them to the buyer. The buyer then gave him something tiny – but what? We couldn’t see; so we moved closer to see better.

Without looking where we were moving to in these narrow ways. A mistake.

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About the author

Adge

Bio: Just a retired mathematician who likes writing stories about the beautiful part of the world he lives in. Checkout https://ko-fi.com/adge0304 for more stuff!

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