Friday Fiction: Of Merchant and Magic Part 6

Spring has come to the north.

Chapter Six – The Sea-Road South

 

The winter passed as they often did, with a little snow, much cold rain, a few flooding storms, and the onset of negotiations for dowry rates. It wasn’t that Tycho didn’t think his daughter was not a fine, well-trained and charming young woman with an abundance of skill and an attractive face, far from it. But Geraarda should not require two gold kog to find a husband. Especially since Tycho would have to leave much of the selection and opening negotiations to Gerta while he went south. Both Gerta and Geraarda had candidates in mind, and to his great surprise several of the same names appeared on both lists. One of Geraarda’s he crossed through, then scratched it over until all that remained was a black splotch.

“He is unacceptable, my lord husband?” Gerta raised one eyebrow.

He pointed at the blot. “He abuses hired women. Was almost thrown bodily out of the merchants’ housing in Gheelford for beating a prostitute when she insisted on being paid the full amount he owed her. He was forced to pay damages as well as twice her hire. I do not trust some of his business practices, either.” What passed between a man and woman was their business so long as both agreed, but bad trade practices plus abuse? Absolutely not in any man who would marry one of Tycho Galnaar’s daughters.

Gerta inhaled with a hiss, frowning mightily, and planted her hands on ample hips. “I agree entirely. I knew of questions about his business practices, and there are rumors that he has injured great-haulers and other beasts, but only rumors. He is off the list and I will tell the boys that he is not welcome to court should he take the initiative.”

“Thank you. Just say that he is not acceptable at this time and leave it there. Should he push matters, you may go into more detail. I witnessed the episode in Gheelford, if a question arises.”

She nodded once, then pointed to a second name and shook her head. “He is not going to inherit more than a quarter-share. His mother informed me that he is not, as she phrased it, the kind to wed a woman.”

Tycho blinked but did is she recommended. He had not noticed the young man’s behavior, but was that in itself a sign? That he had not done anything while out as a journeyman? Well, possibly, but Tycho reminded himself that he’d been continent before marrying. Did the boy have the same disability that he did? It mattered not. Gerta had spoken and he trusted her judgment.

Mid-summer would pass before Geraarda came of age, but it was better to be prepared than surprised and forced to pay more than was needful, especially since he would be away. Not that he anticipated rapid selections and bargains, but sometimes the gods blessed a couple and they found a quick and solid match.

“Do you have a route planned yet, sir?” Ewoud inquired the next afternoon as they inventoried the outgoing goods. A light-mage had refreshed the spells in the wares-house the afternoon before, although Tycho had insisted that he not make all of them reading-bright, just colors and shapes bright. Why spend money for magic they did not need?

“Platport, then well to the south, to Milunis.” He mentally traced the route on a map. “Alas that the gods did not see fit to create a port at the mouth of the Moahne, but so it is.”

Wiebe bounced on his toes. He looked very much like Tycho’s own father, leaner than Tycho but with his father’s green eyes and fast, skillful hands, and a gift for trade charms. Perhaps it was time to apprentice him to a mage, Tycho thought once more. “Moahne, that is the river that ends in the old mountain, is it not, honored father?”

“Yes, it is. For that reason ships cannot go upstream and the cliffs on the coast prevent docking or building a trade city. It is said,” he straightened up, easing his back. “It is said that some of the lords in the south once petitioned the Great Northern Emperor to send a stone mage to carve the cliffs into a city, or at least carve a hole large enough for a port, with a way to reach the top of the headland, but those are stories from around the evening fire, nothing more.”

Ewoud looked thoughtful. “Honored father, are there mages that strong in the Emperor’s court?”

“No one knows. I have been told that in times of great need, several mages from the same guild can pool their strength for a single work, as we pool money for ship shares, but I’ve never asked a mage.” Asking a mage for guild secrets struck Tycho as a very good way to find himself in very great trouble.

“Ah.” Ewoud wrinkled his nose a little and moved to the next stack of goods. “One box of bone knife handles.”

“Check,” Wiebe marked the line on the wax tablet.

“Ten white-fish teeth, uncarved.”

“Check.”

“Five white-fish teeth, carved.”

“Check.”

“One white-fish hide, tanned.”

“Check.”

“Oof.” Ewould struggled to lift the enormous skin. “Um,” the pale grey skin seemed to take on a life of its own as the young man moved around underneath it, looking for a tag. Tycho bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. “Ah, one chest of spices and medicinal herbs from north of Griklant.”

“Not on the list.”

A muffled “What?” came from under the hide.

“I do not see it on the list.”

The hide humped and lumped and Ewoud emerged. He smoothed his hair and peered over his younger brother’s shoulder. “It should be. No, that’s not. Ah, there it is,” he pointed.

Tycho peered as well. “That chest has already been marked off. This one,” he pointed to the lump under the hide and other goods. “Should be over there, with the goods to be shipped on the first voyage. This one has camphor-moss in it.”

Both boys wrinkled their noses. “Cool season, yes, sir.” Everyone knew how camphor-moss sweated out its essence in the heat, and no one wanted to be around large amounts of it when that was going on.

“And we need to bundle that hide. It has aired long enough.”

That night, after Gerta had ordered the boys and her husband to go to the public wash-house to get rid of the white-fish smell, she asked, “How long until the season begins?”

“The priests said two more weeks to the port opens, but I want to wait for the Great Fir to be ready, so another week after that, the gods willing and the shipyard doesn’t find anything wrong.” And another week allowed for the storms that always came with the opening of the port to pass by. He’d written his agent in Platport already, giving the man time to ensure that the great haulers were ready and in condition. Once again, Tycho wondered if the northern oxen could be conditioned to working in the southern lands. Probably not, and shaving their coats so they did not overheat might be exciting, at least for someone watching from the safety of a wares-house roof. He smiled at the thought.

“Oh?”

“Imagining someone attempting to shear northern oxen to use for hauling goods in the south.”

Gerta put one hand over her mouth as she considered the idea. “Oh. Oh my. I don’t— I hope the shearer can run and climb very well.” She stopped. “Can oxen climb?”

“I don’t know, and I do not want to be close enough to find out.” To his knowledge, no one had ever managed to break the huge beasts to drive.

After some consultation and prayer, the priests shifted the date of the port opening several days later. Opening shipping while both Donwah’s and the Scavenger’s stars were high smacked of impiety, or so the priests said. Tycho overheard one of the small traders telling a fellow, “I’d call it bad fortune to open when both storms and Scavenger are at their height.” Tycho was inclined to agree. No one wanted to give too much to the Scavenger, no matter how much good his followers did for the health of the city. For Tycho’s part, he wasn’t comfortable with shipping so much white-fish bone and hide when the sea goddess was watching so closely. He was certain the hunters had followed all the proper precautions, but there were stories about what happened to those who took Donwah’s bounty for granted. They never ended well.

One the day announced, everyone assembled at the temple square and the entrance to the harbor. Heavy grey clouds hugged the sea and darkened the sky, but the air felt warm and a scent of grass and spring seas and soil undercut the usual port smells and woodsmoke. The two mayors led the ship captains in a procession through the watching crowd, their merchant’s staves thumping in unison against the cobbles. Tycho wondered how much it would cost to cobble all the streets, or at least those leading to the wares-houses and market square, then decided that numbers might not go that high. Just the stones alone would be more than he really wanted to think about his taxes paying for. The seamen stopped at the chain, then spread out into a line across the width of the road. The mayors turned and called, “Who will let us trade?”

The senior priestess of Donwah and the senior priest of Maarsrodi called from the foot of their temple steps, “Who asks?”

“We, the children of the sea and of trade,” the seamen and mayors chorused.

“What bring you?”

“We bring offerings and honor and praise to the gods, the gods who gave us life.”

The priest and priestess walked until they faced each other, consulted quietly, then faced the crowd again. They raised their staves over their heads, holding them in two hands. At that signal, junior priests and journeymen smiths rushed out of hiding, while the mages from the guilds associated with trade surged out of the crowd. Together the two groups lifted the chain down from its rings and swiftly disassembled it, the smiths carrying off the smaller connecting chains and the priests lugging the enormous single links back to their resting places in the temple treasuries. The mages formed a line facing the seamen, with the mayors and the senior priests in the middle.

“In the name of Donwah, the port is open!”

“In the name of Maarsrodi, go forth and trade!”

A hole opened in the lines of men. The priest and priestess led the way out to the port, the seamen, mages, mayors, and then the crowd following. The procession went all the way to the farthest end of the most distant dock, and the priests and priestesses began blessing the ships, their owners, and those who would go forth to do business on the waves and roads. Small booths had been set up on the land-side of the road, selling sun-buns and fried sun-disks. The money went to help the poor and orphans, and Tycho purchased sun-buns for the family, then rejoined the wash of people moving down the dock.

A group of black-clad priests walked past without a sound and Tycho fought to keep from ducking. The priests of the Scavenger did not bless anyone. Instead they followed the other priests, silent, watching, faces hidden, black shapes reminding everyone that the Scavenger took what Donwah permitted. Tycho had bought scavenged goods from wrecks once the shippers’ marks had been confirmed and the goods checked for destination marks or spells. He’d gotten some very nice things that way. But he still tried to avoid attracting the black-clad priests’ attention.

One of the older priests of Maarsrodi stopped not far from where Tycho stood with his family, near the repair dock where Great Fir floated. The priest seemed to sniff the air, then searched the crowd until he found Tycho and marched straight toward him, eyes intent, head forward a little like a sight-hound or hunting bird. The people standing in front of Tycho moved out of the way without seeming to, leaving him alone with his family. “You. You are the coin man,” the beak-nosed prelate stated, pointing with a square chin.

Tycho glanced left and right for one of the mint-mages, saw no one, and swallowed. “I collect odd coins, yes, sir.”

The priest came closer and despite the dark blue hood’s shadows Tycho could see that his eyes had shrunk to little dots of black in pale green, as if the priest stood bare-headed in bright sunlight. “You have no magic,” the priest murmured, “but magic is not everything. You have knowledge. But do you have wisdom? Watch, ask, and be ready when the god calls.” He leaned back, throwing his head back as well, and raised his free hand. “The blessings of Maarsrodi on this family, may trade prosper and health fill the house.” Without thinking Tycho bowed low, sensing his wife and children doing likewise. “Watch, ask, and be ready,” the man repeated, spun on his toes, and moved down the dock to the next ship, the hem of his calf-length cloak swishing like a rocking ship.

Gerta recovered first. “My lord husband, has the god spoken through his priest?”

“I can think of no other explanation,” he replied, slowly, quietly, weighing words the way he weighed foreign coin. Should he be afraid? No, but he would watch and be ready for something, whatever it might be. He hoped it would be a magnificent trade, perhaps a monopoly on fine hides, wonderful enough so that he could retire from the sea and roads and stay home growing fat with Gerta and watching his children and grandchildren prosper.

“When may I have my sweet-cake?” Rikila begged. The family’s youngest child held it in her hand, waiting. Gerta had told her to wait until they had been blessed.

“Now,” her parents said in unison. The entire family bit into the soft, warm, spice-and-fruit filled disks. This would be the last sweet for some time, and the older family members savored the treat. The lean part of the year had arrived, between the end of the old food and the arrival of the first fruits and young animals. Rikila devoured her bun, then licked her fingers with studious care before patting the front of her jacket in search of crumbs. Tycho broke off a piece of his own sun-bun and slipped it to her when Gerta looked away for a moment. He really wanted one of the deep-fried fruit pies. Gerta glanced back at him, eyes narrowed a little, as if she discerned his thoughts. How did she know?

***

A week and a half later, Gerta and the two oldest boys walked with Tycho as far as the temple of Maarsrodi. Together they climbed the steps, bowed, and entered the shadows of the god’s dwelling. Once there he turned to his wife. They had said their physical good-bys the night before, savoring each other’s presence and comfort. Now they both struggled to stay calm and to hide their feelings, but he saw how her hand trembled on her smaller staff, a copy of his but suited to a woman’s hand and frame. She only carried it during his absence. Her lips trembled as well, and he wanted to kiss her and make them stop shaking. But that was not the way. Instead he leaned his own staff against the temple wall and turned to face her. As the boys and two priests watched, he removed the heavy gilded chain he wore around his neck, the chain of mastery and of his confraternity of Maarsrodi. “With this chain I give you, Gerta Galnaar born Corwindes now Rhonarides, authority of the house and wares-house, all legal rights and duties as your sex allows.” He lowered it over her head, transferring his privileges and duties to her. Until he returned or Ewoud reached the age of authority, she had full control of his business and full rights within the household. A cold shiver raced over his shoulders and the little hairs on his arms stood up as he let go of the chain.

“With this chain I Gerta Galnaar born Corwindes now Rhonarides take authority of the house and wares-house, and all legal rights and duties as my sex allows.” She kept her voice steady and strong. This was the eighteenth time he had left her for the sea and the road. Would it ever grow easier for either of them? He stepped back, as did she. As he watched, she and the boys bowed to the image of Maarsrodi and left the temple. She no longer glanced back to him as she had when they were younger. Tycho waited until he had full control of his feelings before taking up his merchant’s staff, bowing to the god, and departing. Great Fir sailed with the tide.

The voyage passed quietly, although Tycho shivered a little every time he saw a white-fish breeching, throwing itself out of the water and snapping at low-flying pouch-bills and sea-fats. Tycho had eaten a sea-fat once, and had moved it onto his list of foods he would eat only if absolutely nothing else were available, and “else” included shoe and strap-leather. The white birds looked plump and tasty, especially this time of year when the little grey-darters schooled to spawn, but the flesh tasted of nothing but grease and the flavor had clung to his mouth for days after he’d eaten the bird. He still wondered if you could light one and use it instead of mage-lights or candles. If the white-fish thought them tasty, they could have every one they caught, Tycho thought. Although he wondered about the white-fish’s sense of taste.

“The weather is too fair,” Deelman Garoostra grumbled. The ship’s captain folded his arms and glared at the soft blue sky and splashing white-fish. “Fish runs look too good. Bad sign that is. Means storms.” He stomped to the ladder and climbed up onto the stern castle, staring at the sky as if he could make it reveal the storms he swore were hiding just out of sight. After a week and a half, Tycho had grown used to the litany. Perhaps it was Deelman’s way of warding off ill-luck. He’d seen stranger behaviors, like that trader from Corwin who always pissed on the left side of the road. If it worked, who was Tycho to say anything?

By the time the spire of the temple of Donwah at Platport appeared over the horizon, Tycho and his fellow travelers had decided that Deelman’s talk had worked. For the first time Tycho could recall, there’d not been any truly bad weather, and the one storm had felt more like a token effort than a true blow. The wind had come up, the waves grew larger, and a it had rained for one watch. Then the clouds disappeared, the stars shone down, and all was quiet. On the other hand, the trip had taken three and a half weeks instead of the usual two and a half because of the quiet winds. “At least we’re not on one of those ships that also has oars, like they use in Liambruu,” Gerrt reminded everyone as they watched the land creeping into view. Tycho suspected that they’d have to anchor for the night and not make port until the next morning. “I’m not one for rowing.”

Tycho glanced down at his winter belly and had to agree. “Aye, that’s what sons and apprentices are for.”

“Could be worse,” one of the sailors said as he passed, hauling a length of rope. “Could be towing the ship upstream like they do in the eastern lands.” The merchants all made the horns to ward off the very thought. Tycho had seen that once, when he was a journeyman, and had decided that he’d rather work in the mines than drag the big barges up the river. The ropemen all bore terrible scars on their shoulders and backs from the heavy lines. The oldest could not longer stand straight, legs bent and shoulders hunched even when they slept. Weight-mages could only ease the barge so much. Maarsrodi and Donwah save him from such a fate.

The next morning the Great Fir docked in Platport. The merchants disembarked and visited the temples. Tycho watched the crane moving his goods as he waited for his agent to arrive. Motion caught his eye and he glanced right. A man so tall as to serve as a mast wove his way through the people doing business, loafing, picking pockets, or trying to move their goods, his head and shoulders sticking up over the rest of the men and women. Liam Scribeson was a blue-bark tree among men, tall and fragile. He leaned on a walking stick. The gods had made him tall rather than strong, with loose joints and weak eyes. Tycho didn’t care if others whispered that Liam’s parents had angered Yoorst. Liam had the best memory for trade and travel that Tycho had ever encountered, and the man knew every caravan master and beast master on land, or so it seemed. “Well met,” Tycho called.

“Well met, Meester Tycho,” Liam called back, his voice that of a man half his size or smaller. He nodded toward the Great Fir. “Yours?”

“In part.”

“The expensive part?” He smiled and extended his hand. They pressed palms.

“Aye.” Tycho followed Liam back through the crowd.

The calls of the hawkers and hagglers almost drowned out the calls of the sailors and port-men. “Ugh, you call that fresh?”

“Dowah strike me with scales if I lie, they’re fresh caught this morning,” a woman screeched.

A man lounging against a large mound of bales of raw wool snorted, “That explains why you always wear long skirts and scarves, Mari-the-Sulk.”

The woman pushing the fish cart set it down for a moment and shook her large fist at the speaker. “You wouldn’t know fresh if the fish jumped out of the water and slapped you with its tail, Teernan.”

“Hot pies! Hot meat pies!” a time-worn man called. He carried a tray of strange looking pies in front of him.

“How many cats you serving today,” a sailor called, laughing.

The wizened pie-seller glared and croaked, “Gember strike me dead if there’s ought but good meat in these pies!”

“I thought you told me that cat’s good if you brine it first,” a buxom matron yelled back, generating laughter and a few queasy looks. Tycho steered clear of all the peddlers and dodged the beggars. He’d given at the temple and he didn’t trust some of the so-called “injured” men and orphans. Tycho sniffed as he and his agent pushed upstream against the flow of hawkers and businessmen. Mud, muck, a whiff of fish guts, dung, baking bread, and under it all the choking sting of hot pitch from the caulk-works. It smelled like a port. The ground rolled a little under his feet as usual and he was glad for his staff.

Neither man spoke until they ducked into Liam’s office in a small section of one of the city warehouses not far from the end of the port and the start of the river-front. “You are still planning to go as far as Milunis, sir?” Liam began. A slender young man who looked like a shortened version of Liam served hot tea and buns, bowed, and left. “My youngest nephew.”

“Yes.” Both men let three drops of tea fall to the floor in thanks, then drank. The buns contained a thick, sweet fruit paste, the kind some people made even thicker and used as fruit-sticks. “Have you heard of any difficulties yet?”

“No, sir, not yet, but no ships have come in from the south.”

Tycho blinked, set the thick-walled mug down on the table between them and leaned forward. “No ships at all?”

“Not from Liambruu, sir. Chin’mai, Richlant, Aardoui, and a few others, but no one from Liabruu. One of the men from Richlant said that he’d been told all travel from Liambruu was now overland. I don’t know about that, because how will they move the stones?” Liam waved one flipper-like hand. “But I do know no ships or traders from Liambruu have come in.”

“Huh.” Tycho considered the words and what they might mean. It could be nothing, or that the winds were unfavorable. Perhaps the king had died and no one wanted to leave until a new ruler was crowned and his policies known. Or was it something worse, like plague? He made the horns, lest thought become truth. “That surprises me.”

“There are rumors that the king sent word to Milunis and the counties along the mountains that they must pay for the right to trade with Liambruu, in addition to the usual taxes, but those are rumors.” Liam straightened up. “Not a rumor—magic is twice as expensive this year as last.”

Tycho winced inside. “Guild strife?” That was the usual cause, someone stepping into someone else’s rights, that or a material shortage.

“No. Six of the guild mages and several apprentices and journeymen have died this spring, with more sickening and being spell-weakened. It’s not the usual spring illnesses, or an early bout of the summer flux.” Liam blinked and squinted a little as he looked over Tycho’s head at something. “There’s a whisper that the Scavenger is angry with the mages, and a whisper back that the Scavenger usually moves less subtly.” Liam wrinkled his nose as if he smelled something foul. “I prefer not to inquire too deeply.”

“Neh. That’s for the Scavenger’s followers and priests.” Tycho needed more of the hot tea after that news. Thanks be that he did not depend on magic purchased locally. “To change deities, to Yoorst. The great-haulers?”

Liam exhaled through his lips, making a rude sound.  “Is it true that someone found a way to tame the northern oxen to pull?”

Tycho felt his eyes bulging with surprise at the idea. Had Liam ever seen one of their hides? “No, no truth to the rumor. I bought hides from a merchant from that region and he said he thought Radmar’s Wheel would stop turning before that happened. Even raising them from orphaned young and hand-feeding them won’t tame them enough.”

“Pity. The great-haulers are in condition. I took the liberty of drawing up a contract based on last year. Prices are higher because two of the weight-mages died, so more animals were needed early on before the current yearlings were certified fit.” Liam took a contract page out of the open-topped box at his side and handed it to Tycho. Tycho skimmed it, nodded once, stopped and re-read the price again, and sighed to himself. Of course prices would go up when he had more goods to ship overland. But it was not as bad as it might have been, and it did include a beast mage who would go with the animals as far as Gheelford. “You need five wagons, sir?”

“Yes. Full size. And the usual spares.” That would be twenty animals plus their handler and the mage. Tycho resumed reading the contract, saw that there were no other changes, and held out his hand. Liam handed him an ink-jar and freshly-trimmed quill. Tycho signed and initialed the contract, then took his seal and ink-pot out of their pouch. He stamped the bottom of the contract before returning it to Liam. Liam tipped the page, looking at the shimmer in the seal, then set it aside.

“There will be a caravan going as far as Moahnebrig that leaves in two days, with some continuing to Milunis. Otherwise there’s a caravan in four days as far as Gheelford, and one the day after taking the coast route to Moahnemund. All three are taking travelers still, provided you have a seal and your own transportation. The first group are using Vlaaterbe law, the third I have not heard from, and the second is still deciding on an ealdorman.” Liam frowned and shook his head. “If I might sir, if you can be ready, I’d recommend the first group. The second, well, the senior trader has his head up his ass so far even the Scavenger-born can’t find it without divine aid.” He rolled his eyes. “They are some of Corwin, some of Guill, and some of Sinmartin, plus independents.”

“Maarsdam be merciful, what a mix,” Tycho groaned. He felt sorry for anyone who got tangled up with that group. The first group would also have access to fresher fodder and probably less trouble with robbers, since they were early in the trading season. “I can be ready if the beasts and handlers are.”

Liam smiled. “They are. The great-haulers started smelling spring a few weeks back. One whole farm got loose and decided to come to town on their own, Yoorst as my witness. It made a bit of a mess.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t here for that little excitement.” Tycho chuckled, imagining the chaos as thirty or so of the large birds wandered through the city.

“I watched it from a second floor window. That was close enough, thank you.” Liam poured them both more tea. “So what news from the north? Have you sold Wiebe to the slowest ship captain yet?”

“No, but I had a few moments. His mother is making sounds about tying him up and leaving him on someone’s doorstep with a note and the apprentice fee.”

“Worse than my cousin’s brat?”

“Not yet, but you remember how I said that the priests of Korvaal had planted trees around the edge of the enclosure that abutted Gember’s district?”

Liam pursed his lips as he thought. “No, I—Oh, yes, I do now.” He started to smile even wider. “The trees are now taller than the wall.”

“Indeed.”

“How many boys were involved in this adventure?”

“Only six, and only one of mine.” Which was one too many. “The watch caught them before the third was over the wall. They were trying to sneak festival sweets from the great ovens.”

Liam shook his head as he laughed. “If the ovens are like those here, they would have been in for a great and unhappy surprise.” He coughed. “Not that I know anything more than I have been told about the baking plaza.”

“Of course not.” What boy didn’t try to raid the ovens at least once in his life? Which was why the priests of Gember and the plaza servants carried large, thick, dough boards for other uses besides removing loaves from the ovens.

“Youth is wasted on boys,” Liam said after a thoughtful moment.

“It certainly is.” If only he could send Wiebe and Bastiaan out with the beast-handlers and channel some of that youth into less exciting streams.

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

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4 thoughts on “Friday Fiction: Of Merchant and Magic Part 6

    • Great-haulers are large, heavy-set birds with long necks. They look like very stout legs with a broad chest and head and not much else.

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