A red blush was just fringing the coaled outlines of the treetops and hills in the east when I returned with Gort who had been secreted off the road to the inn just west, near where we had first entered it the day before. I picked a new spot, safe enough for the short time we expected to be delayed at the Inn and went on alone looking forward to what would still be an early breakfast there. I saw Brann in passing the second warehouse, lining up his bearers, laden with a few more goods than he had arrived with.
Brann spotted me, gave a cheery wave and laid his finger to his lips. I returned the wave and pointing to the inn, went on. As usual I was last to table. Thavis and Brock were finishing up, based on the number of plates, an astonishing breakfast. I picked at the remains.
Thavis seemed in good spirits. "We are to join Brann before the warehouse soon as we finish. He has put aside two bows and a stocked quiver each, for us to carry, otherwise we should go unencumbered, save for our own things, of course. Speaking of which your - venture this morning went well?"
"Well enough," I replied. "Our other companion waits just west for us."
We signed out of the Inn and joined Brann. Reintroducing Gort caused a small argument between Brann and his peers, settled with much reassurance on the part of Brann that the device was a good for a wealthy client that we were selling, not a attempt to replace workers. Otherwise, the bearers seemed to consider the artifact no more than a clockwork curiosity and ignored it. Sort of like having a car at the turn of the century, I guessed.
With Brock leading, we soon circled the town avoiding the roads then on toward the climbing slopes of the north.
I now understood the true worth of the travois, for they were narrow and unlike wheeled wagons or trundles could be pulled over anything or lifted like stretchers over creek beds and small rifts. Also far easier to replace a broken pole than to fashion a new wheel. The bearers seemed adept at handling them and managed without complaint. Gort proved his worth helping to haul the loads up slopes where hands and feet both touched ground in the climb and as an anchor along goat trails so narrow only a fool would try them not safely roped one to the other. It quickly became clear why the Dervin pass was the only commercial route north.
I was no expert bowman, but with my width of chest and musculature offsetting a shorter reach managed a fair natural draw. Also, I had come to realize that my height was not much different from those about me here despite being generally shorter than the citizenry of Illinois. I had bow-hunted a little before, so managed to skewer a few wild rabbit and a goat-like creature I was assured was good eating. Something at least to supplement such dried or salted trail supplies as our merchant provided. As Brock and Thavis seemed skilled with setting game traps, at least our diet would be varied.
It was the third day since I had left the cabin near Corbell and there seemed as yet no indication we would clear the range soon. We eventually stopped for dinner and since we were losing the light, contemplated whether to travel any further. Brock squatted down in front of me.
"We could make my nephew's barrows tonight, were we to travel on but there is no need. Better we come on it by daylight, I say."
"Certainly no need to kill ourselves stumbling around this mountain in the dark, I agree. We are not blessed with those eyes of yours, Brock."
"Aye then. Camp here for the night." The Nublin squinted at the surrounding rock. "There's outcrops there, there and there" he said, jabbing at protrusions across the narrow ravine we currently occupied. I'll help ye hang yer hammock."
Brann had supplied, as well as the bows and a few camp items, tight woven woolen hammocks threaded with long sticky ropes which I conceived as a trail luxury.
"The ground's flat just here," I said. "I would be just as happy rolling out my mat."
Brock sighed, and explained as if I were a bit slow. "I wouldn't unless forced to it, William. Things crawl about these mountains as sting badly once the rock cools off of an evening. Best to hang the hammocks from the tarred ropes when possible or wrap up tight in them cocoon like if not. T'were more comfortable hanging in 'em anyway."
"Oh. Thanks for the tip, then."
I looped one hammock rope around a crag while Brock pounded a cleat into the mountain face opposite, and attached the other end to it. I leered at the result which bowed down to within two feet of the ground when tested with my weight. I have no experience with hammocks save the garden variety. I watched carefully when the others bedded, and was the last to do so.
My first attempt landed me squarely on the ground beneath it. I tried again, spreading the thing open, taking a seated position in its center. I lifted one leg slowly off the ground and into it, laid back, then drew the second up and gingerly nestled it in. The woolen sheet drew up in a pocket around me and suddenly it seemed quite stable, and very comfortable. The slow rocking motion was hypnotic and I slid into the deepest sleep I can remember.
I woke with the light, more rested than I would have thought possible, my slumber dreamless and undisturbed. I remembered that I was ensconced in a hammock and frighteningly, realized I had no idea how to get free of it without dumping myself out onto the rock. I waited quietly for the others to arise. They seemed to have no trouble and bustled about untying the contraptions and storing them away. Brock noticed I was still swinging away in mine and approached, looking down at my recumbent form. "Will you not be joining us then? Mean to sleep the day away is it, William?"
"I don't know how to get out of this thing. Can you hold it on the one side while I..."
Brock broke out in a rasping laugh. "Naw, I'll leave ye here till we be done then come fetch you out!"
There was some sniggering from the bearers and even Thavis and Brann traded mobile expressions.
"Here now," chided Thavis, "everyone has a first day in these things, no need to make sport. One leg down first, William, then get your balance on that, and up with you. Brock, help the man so he doesn't end on his arse!"
It proved not the trial I feared and I too, soon had everything ready for travel.
My first sight of a Nublin barrow-town came into view before noon. The dwellings were above ground for the most part. They looked like large half buried eggs with rock shard walls roofed over with a thatch of the reedy mountain grass that seemed to infest every crack in the slopes here. Timber shored openings lead back into the near face of the mountain, and above these openings several other smaller bores made their way inward. I saw no signs of workshops or such. I mentioned this to Brock.
"All that's inside where it's cooler work'in summers, and warmer work'in winters."
He pointed up. "See the smokes?" I looked, and although the mountain currents dispersed it quickly, smoke did rise from several of the bores scattered high above the mine-like entrances.
"Others facing the current bring in air and some, surfaced with mica, reflect light down in where needed. Not into the workin' shafts themselves a'course. A waste a' labor that would be, but the top veins, as played out, well, we expand on 'em and make use of 'em, eh?"
Thavis seemed to take the Barrow in stride, but Brann and his bearers ogled everything and seemed skittish. However, Gort seemed more an annoyance to these people. Like a neighbor parking a buldozer in your driveway. Relations between humans and Nublin, I recalled, had not always been friendly.
Brann cleared his throat, and piped a question at Brock. "Are you sure we will be welcome? I always thought your people lived below ground and hated strangers."
"We don't live in holes, lad but we do work the ores, and like to get the most out of our labor. It's hard work and once trued out there's no reason to let all that work go ta waste. It's all simple enough when you get the hang of it. We bunk above ground like everyone else, not as you may have heard tell. As for strangers, well, did ye enjoy yer trip here Brann? Like 'ta be visitin' right regular all social, now you know where we be?"
"Eh, if I were a mountain goat maybe. I didn't notice any roads about."
"It be because there are none. We don't lay em." We walked on and Brock waved at a few bearded faces as we went, continuing his commentary. "We don't live in caves either. Well, perhaps some dry, dead ones as we discover in our work if well trued out and cleanable. But that's just chance and circumstance. There's clans as pan for the metals in some areas, and others as grow crop, mostly. Some hunt and husband animals. Each clan tends to specialize, and we trade back and forth regular for our needs. But the mountains, aye, that's the prime land as we see it. Dell or cliff, it is safer, and that we know it well."
"Surprised then that you are moving your clan to the lowlands."
Brock winced. "Well, the hills can only support so many. As the numbers strain the land's ability to support us we form new clans and find fresh land, though we are not prolific breeders as you folk seem to be. Some seasons a few of us must look to the bottom lands for a time. Generally we can return in a few generations, as our numbers wax and wane."
"So you're caught in a population increase right now?"
"That's the straight of it. But I'm bound to make the best of it and Chord and yours could make things easier and better for my clan in this so's I am decided to be good neighbors, as we must be neighbors in any case."
"That's a good plan. I know Chord is eager to have you around. He has an open mind, and an eye for profit. You couldn't have chosen a better course."
"Aye that is how I see it, too. Do you have that fancy bit I traded you for the beer back when we met?" As I still had it in my pouch, I said yes.
"You might put the broach on then. It's my clan symbol on it. That'll confuse this bunch some, stir up questions for me but earn you a bit of respect meantime as well."
I smiled, thinking on this. "So you are a bit of a rebel among your own eh?"
Brock puckered his lips inward,causing his facial hair to blouse like feathers fluffed on a strutting bird. "Never hurts to tweak a beard, now and again."
Brann's eyes glittered with a sudden thought and again drew Brock's attention. "Your people here, do they weave? Do you use rugs, tapestries, the like?"
Brock nodded. "Some. Mostly we cure furred Skins and such, but some will weave, and O' course, such fancy clothes as we wear must come from somewhere, you know." Brock fingered the roughly carded wool of his shirt, and pulled down on the stinking cured leather of his jerkin.
Brann pursed his lips. "While export might be, unnecessary, perhaps some metals trade for larger woven things, like rugs might bring me back quite ah, often, even given the terrain. Is there someone in particular I should talk with?"
"The clan chief, Stenn Orehammer-- a cousin of mine. You will meet him directly, as that is where we are going now. Mind ye, he is not the open-eyed liberal I be." While I managed not to choke on this statement, I did notice that Brann started to take an even keener, more measured interest in the village as we walked.
Bio: So, I write largely science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy/humor. I do novels, short stories, Serial short stories, Novellas, all that. If all goes well, I expect to be posting a good deal of both here. What else can I say? I like walks in the rain and ice cream? I sketch, play blues harp, have been known to program for fun. Gamer? Yeah, I'm a slacker. Ran Plotters of Dreams for writers before it was virtually shut down save in title by Yahoo cuts in service, for ten years and counting. Ive moderated other groups, and obviously, writing is a passion. -Want to make peoples day, send them on vacation, make them chuckle occasionally.