Friday Fiction: Of Merchant and Magic Part 8

Tycho’s caravan moves south, and Tycho chews on some ideas as well as road dust.

Chapter Eight – Across the River


“I don’t have a good way to get letters of credit to Milunis,” the Five Cities factor said. He grimaced, although Tycho wasn’t certain if it was because of the complication or because a tanner’s waste wagon had leaked as it passed through town to the river and the nose-stinging stench was still hanging around the building. “Have you traded recently that far south, sir?”

“No. Guill was as far as I went last year. Usually leave the southern cities to Liambruu and Sinmartin and Bushmakk.”

“It’s, well, see.” The round-faced man hunted among rolled maps and documents in the cubbies behind his long counter until he found a map. “We’re here,” he pointed with one thick, dark finger, then put river rocks on the corners of the map to hold it. “River’s here, and the main roads and routes are the top five strips. Bottom two are ship routes on the river.” Tycho peered, looking for names, and found Milunis on the fourth strip down. “Red dashes are county, duchy, city, and Liambruu borders.”

“I see.”

“Because of the problem with the crown’s credit being no good, they started leaning on their merchants. After we,” he pointed at the floor, “and other people got stung last year, no one will take anything from Liambruu except goods for barter and silver coin. Good silver coin, and you can be certain everyone is weighing every single piece of metal with the crown mark on it.”

Tycho snorted. Debasing coinage was a good way to tell the world that you’d ruined your accounts, once everyone found out. “They still mint good silver?”

“Aye. So far,” his mouth twisted a little to one side and he snorted in turn. “But that meant that a lot more businesses are wary of letters of credit, even from the Five Free Cities, unless you personally know and are known to the receiving party, or have an agent in the city already.”

Damn. Tycho had neither, just his contacts through the confraternity. “What about temple letters?”

“Same problem. And without mage-notarization, someone could claim the letter was forged and there would be no way to prove it was good.” The notary took a deep breath. “There is one option, other than hiring a wagon to carry the coin you’ll need. Maartin Corwinda is known and has credit in Milunis as well as here. I can write you a letter of credit through his agent. Fair warning, he’ll want three percent. He’s done this before, and we’ve done it for him.”

Ugh. Tycho felt his lip trying to curl and wanted to spit. Doing business with and through Maartin Corwinda? He’d rather kiss a great-hauler’s tail feathers. He’d rather eat a sea-fat. If Maartin said the sun rose in the east, Tycho would look west for the dawn. The last leather he’d accepted that had Maartin’s seal had rotted before it came off the wagon, almost. But he couldn’t haul three hundredweight of silver along with his goods, assuming he could find that much in Gheelford at a reasonable interest rate. He wondered if this were some sort of test by Maarsrodi. Or perhaps he had irritated the god in some way? Tycho considered his options, swallowed his pride, and took a long, calming breath.

“Very well. Three percent?”

Relief colored the factor’s voice. “Three percent, due within a week of arrival, no excuses, or he’ll lien your goods.” As he pulled clean parchment, the proper inks, and a seal out of their cubbies in the counter, he added, “The rate for silver here is one vlaat to three-quarters Gheelmark.”

He’d heard worse, but not much worse. “Be nice if the gods would direct someone to a new silver mine. Preferably one of my sons.”

The factor chuckled as he started writing out the necessary letters. “Or one of mine. Tin would also be welcome. My wife wouldn’t turn down jade, either.”  Tycho left him to his work and walked to the letter wall to see if he had anything. A bank of boxes was built into the wall. Each vertical row had the name of a city, and a wooden tag on the individual boxes told which confraternity owned the box. Tycho found his and opened the door. A stack of letters and a parcel filled the box, and he glanced through them. He had four, two from home, one from Liam, and one from Andrade’s agent in Moahnebrig. Tycho put the others back, closed the little door, and took the letters to the window to read. He started with the one from Moahnebrig, scratching his head a little as he tried to decipher the man’s script. Was paper so expensive that the man had used what had to be a hummingbird quill to save space?

Tycho made it through the first paragraph, quit, and re-folded it and put it away to finish later. Liam’s letter was far easier, although the news wasn’t good, or at least, not as good as Tycho would have liked. Platport was calling in all its old coin, to be melted and re-cast with the new mark. Tycho didn’t have much in his bag, and Liam said they were going by weight on the exchange. But once word spread, Platport old coin would be completely useless for anything but melting to recast. Worse, rumor had it that more Free City coins than just those from Marshburt had been found to be false. But no more mages had died.

Tycho folded that letter and put it and the others in the leather purse on his belt. He’d had it made of hard leather with additional shrunk rawhide inside the bottom, so anyone who tried to slice it from below would be gravely disappointed. Instead of cords or straps, metal chains held it to his belt, opposite his kidney knife. “Meester Tycho? All done. All I need is your seal.”

Tycho pressed his seal into the blue-green wax, counted to three, and lifted it away. The factor lifted the page, tilted it, noted the shimmer and nodded. Then he presented an ink-pad and Tycho stamped the top of the introduction letter. Tycho signed the credit letter, the factor counter signed it and added his own small official seal, then bundled both into a larger sheet of glazed paper, folded it carefully, and sealed it in red with the local seal.

“How much for the teeth?” a prosperous looking man asked later that afternoon. His fine white shirt and dark red-brown brocaded long-vest, and patterned leather belt suggested that he was a master craftsman. Tycho couldn’t see a badge on his flat-brimmed hat.

“Four vlaat each, the two plain ones are three and a half.”

A plainly dressed woman who had been peering around the man stared, eyes almost bulging, then shook her head, frowned, and continued on her way. What did she expect? White-fish teeth were pure luxury, and hard to obtain.

“Hmm.” He stroked his neatly trimmed and braided beard, then looked up and to the side, lips moving as if he were working numbers in his head. “That makes two, a half, and a half quarter mark for the plain ones,” he said under his breath. His lips moved a little more, then he looked Tycho in the eye and jerked his chin down in a nod of sorts. “I’ll take the plain ones.” He opened a leather pouch and brought out five marks, putting the coin down on the trestle table, then poked around with a scar-blotched finger until he found a quarter coin. Tycho weighed the quarter coin and the man frowned. “Don’t trust me?”

“I trust you, sir. I don’t trust any part coin, not after last season. I was in Guill when they caught the smith shaving part coins. Every coin he cut for someone, he shaved.” Tycho shook his head as he handed the man the two teeth, each as big as his own hand, wrist to finger tip. “Some were Gheelford marks, some were Rhonari vlaat, even some Guill vlatten.”

The man clutched the teeth, his lips parting in a snarl, eyes narrowed. “I hope they whipped him around the city.”

“They did, after they stripped him of his guild rank and confiscated all his goods and metals. Then Lord Valrep had him put in the stocks for a week, there in the market by the justice pillar.”

“Good. Coin clippers give the rest of us a bad name.” He must be a smith, Tycho guessed.

“That they do. Like bakers who short-weight, or cloth men who over-stretch their fabric.”

“Aye.” The smith departed, satisfied, and Tycho swept the coins into his pouch and rearranged the display to cover the gaps. Now, if he could just sell the carved teeth. He wondered what the smith planned to do with the teeth. Set them in something? Turn them into cups?

A man in farmer’s garb bustled up. “How much for that hide there, the rough one in the back?”

“This one, sir?”

“No, ‘tother one.” Tycho moved his hand onto a darker skin. “Yes, that one.”

Tycho tugged it out of the stack and set it beside the teeth and other wares. “It’s northern schaef, one vlaat and a quarter.”

“Huh. And that first one?”

“Two vlaat.”

“Two vlaat? What did it do, graze on pure gold? One and a quarter,” the farmer held his hand at an angle, signaling a bargain.

Tycho responded in kind and the dicker was on.


“Why’d you sell to the farmer?” one of the fine-goods merchants asked a few days after they’d crossed the Gheel.

“His money’s as good as anyone’s.” Tycho didn’t like the taste of the food that night, but it was food and he hadn’t cooked it, so he stayed quiet.

The fine-goods man opened his mouth to reply when they heard Jens exclaim, “No mages?” Everyone stopped and turned to see what the commotion was.

Jens and a local farmer had been bargaining over some fodder for the great-haulers. “No mages right now. The fire-away mage died back last full moon, and our beast-mage lost his power, still not go it all back yet. Heard that the light-mage over in Lordswood is still working, but he’s got enough work to keep him eating meat twice a day every day.” The lean man scratched under his floppy straw hat, then settled it on his head again. “T’others died, or still so weak they can’t do proper work. Bad stuff it is, heard we’re not t’only ones?”

“Aye. Happened in Platport, Gheelford, other places north of the river,” Jens said. “No one knows why.”

“Huh. Well, that doesn’t change my price.” Tycho returned to chewing. What was happening to the mages? No mage-lights meant more candles, for one. Wax would go up in price, and he decided to encourage Gerta to buy more and ship it to Gheelford. He’d send a letter to the factor there to warn him of the shipment and to see if the chandlers wanted to buy it at a discount for early cash payment. Lamp-oil too, but he didn’t trade in that yet. The cost of shipping just didn’t cover the price, or it hadn’t. Without light-mages, it might go up enough to make it worth his while, perhaps.

As they walked farther and farther south, Tycho began wondering why the gods had not seen fit to make at least one river run south to north. All the useful rivers for trade ran from east to west, from the distant eastern mountains to the western sea. A few smaller rivers fed into the great rivers like the Gheel and Moahne, but they were not long enough to be useful for traders needing to ship goods. For that matter, why had the gods made the Moahne and Gheel so difficult to ship on? Because they had, he told himself yet again. And there might be a reason he didn’t want to know. They were on the dry stretch between streams, and trees had given way to grass and perfume shrub. Instead of brown, the dirt was reddish with white lumps in it. The world was as it was.

Yergin, one of the grain merchants, wiped his face with a scrap of something formerly white and waved at the land around them, carefully, lest he startle the great-haulers. “I’ve heard it said that this area was true desert during the Great Cold, like far southern Liambruu is today. No grass, just scrub and sand and prickle-ball plants, that kind of place. But cold, not hot.”

“Huh.” Tycho looked at the grey-green leaves on a twisted bush. The plant’s bark looked silvery and smooth, and nothing grew under it. The clumps of pale green grass started an arm’s length from the outermost branches. “Wouldn’t take much to do that, looking at that grass.”

“There’s a kind of grain they grow here for their own use, like barley but better for dry, bitter soil. The yield’s not as good as wheat or true barley, but it can survive without rain for longer.” Yergin stared straight ahead. “Not where I’d want to try to farm if I had a choice.”

“Neh, not if I had a choice,” Tycho agreed. Thinking about grain reminded him. “Do you know if anyone eats silk-stem seed unless its famine?”

Yergin’s head jerked back, as if Tycho had just insulted him, then he relaxed and laughed. “Only in famine, although it is said that they use it as flavoring in Liambruu. Have you ever tasted it?”

“Not that I know of.”

“You might, once we get to Milunis, or might not, since Liambruu isn’t trading much. I have. It is bitter. They grind it up and add it to sauces to make the flavor deeper, or so the spice-trader I ate with averred. Don’t know about deeper, but I wouldn’t touch it to sell.”

Bitter. The seeds in the wheat with the false seal had smelled sour, not bitter. Did that mean they weren’t silk-stem, or did it ferment to sour from bitter? “Thanks. Jens said he thought the seed mixed into the bad grain might have been silk-stem, but none of the witnesses wanted to taste it and find out.”

“Smart men. I don’t eat what I can’t identify.”

“No meat pies for you then, sir?” one of the guards asked from the outside of the column.

Everyone in earshot laughed, and Yergin grinned, showing his missing teeth. “Neh. If I’m going to eat rat, I want to know that I’m eating rat. And it had better be cooked all the way through, not like that garbage the inn-keeper tried to serve at Harnancourd a few years back. My hand to Maarsdam, I heard the roast bleat as the beer-wench brought it into the room.”

Talk shifted to food stories and Tycho chuckled, winced, and considered the seeds in the wheat. False coin and false grain. Two things that everyone in the cities needed to live. And not just in the cities, but fewer farmers bought grain than did towns’ folk. And why couldn’t the mages spot the bad coins? Was there counter-magic on them of some kind? Now he wished he’d tried the most recent bad coins in the vinegar to see what they did. They were much closer to good silver than before. Between the counterfeiter and the fool on the throne in Liambruu, he was ready to beat someone with his staff if he could determine who had caused all this trouble. Having to depend on Maartin Corwinda! Ugh.

Tycho turned the coins and the grain over and over in his mind. He needed to ask someone about the seeds, but didn’t want to inquire in the caravan. Plus they were all northerners, and might not know local southern plants. He mulled things over, when he wasn’t trying to keep the great-haulers from acting up. The open country woke something in their tiny brains, or inspired mischief, and every little while one of the birds would try to wander off, with or without the wagon. Supposedly a smaller, wild great-hauler still lived south of the Moahne River. Tycho did not want his beasts getting ideas. If one ran away, he’d have to pay extra, and he’d be down to two spares.

The group reached Moahnebrig in good time, for loose definitions of speed. Storms had kept them in camp two days in a row, but the great-haulers refused to budge when hail was falling, tucking their heads under their heavy wings and making large feather-covered lumps on the ground. For that matter Tycho had not been eager to travel in lightning storms. Then the mud slowed them for another day and a half, of course, even though they were early in the season and the ruts were not that bad yet.

The local people kept the roads better in this area, or maybe the ground just drained faster. Either way, several wagons still bogged in the sticky red mud and had to be pushed, pulled, and heaved back into motion. It would be midsummer when they reached Milunis, or so it felt some days. Damn, but he wanted to travel by water. So much faster and cheaper than overland. Of course, Tycho admitted, a traveller couldn’t drown on the road without trying hard. Yes, but Donwah still claimed her own on the rivers. Even so, for trade, water was better. “How would you connect the rivers,” Tycho mused aloud one evening.

“Huh?” Jens asked, looking up from his plate.

“How would you connect the rivers? Could you dig a big ditch, like the drainage ditches they use to keep the fields dry south of Maans’hill, but with water in it for moving flat-boats?”

Jens chewed, then shrugged. “Ask the Great Northern Emperor’s mages. I’ve heard he has earth-moving mages in his court, but I’ve also heard that he rides in a wagon pulled by flying pards.”

“I don’t want to be under a pard, flying or otherwise.” The big hunting beasts left scat so foul even the tanners couldn’t make use of it.

“But that’s what it would take, or a lot of digging and work. And how would you keep the water in the ditch?” Jens ate some more. “I’ve heard a few people talk about trying to link the rivers, but no one wants to work out how to do it.”

That was the conclusion Tycho was reaching. Just trying to imagine the cost of labor made his purse scream for mercy.

They had to stop the next day near a modest village in order to repair some of the wheels and to let the great-haulers rest after an especially difficult stretch of sandy road. Tycho took advantage of the delay and after confirming that no one was interested in buying hides, he sought out the temple of Gember and Korvaal. They shared a house in this region. Tycho left a small offering and looked for a priestess or priest.

“May I help you?” an old woman asked. She wore the light brown with wheat patterns of Gember.

He bowed to her. “Yes, reverend sister. I have a question about seeds and grain.” He spoke slowly. His northern accent might confuse her and he didn’t want to cause accidental offense.

“And what is your question?”

“Are there seeds that look like silk-stem but are not? I ask because someone has added bad grain to wheat and used false seals on the bags. It smells sour, not bitter, small and grey, thinner than wheat,” he added.

The hunched old woman leaned on a staff with a small sickle made of wood capping the end. “And this was in wheat sacks, you say?”

“Yes, reverend sister. In Gheelford, possibly a little north too.”

She sniffed and blinked. One eye was age-white, but the other seemed to bore into him. “South of the river. You will see tall plants in fallow fields, tall with large single flowers on top. The look like wool, the flowers do, grey and fuzzy, but those are the seeds. We harvest the seeds, comb them out of the wool, and use it for padding and stuffing. It can be spun, but not easily, and works better if it is spun into true wool or even ramie. The seeds smell sour, and we do not use them. And mages must leave the room when the women pull the fluff from the seeds, because the seeds give them a headache, terrible headache, and they can’t work for the rest of the day. Seeds are oily and burn grey. No one eats them.”

“No one eats them?” he repeated, making certain he had heard.

“Correct. Are you deaf?”

He blushed. She sounded exactly like the priestess who had taught basic reading and writing at the temple school. “No, reverend sister, just far from home and wanting to be certain that I did not mishear.”

“Humpf. And you say these were in grain that smelled sour?”

“Yes, reverend sister. It was burned, the opened sacks. The one still sealed was returned to the Scavenger because it had been sold as salvage after a shipwreck.” Tycho did not like this one little bit.

“Good. If you come across more of this, tell one of us,” she pointed to herself. “We need to know who is tarnishing the goddess’s good name for gain or for evil.”

He shivered. The look on her face boded ill for the guilty party or parties. He bowed low. “If I encounter more, I will do that, and I will tell my companions to do likewise.”

“Good. Go with Gember’s blessing.”

“Thank you, reverend sister.”

The stuff gave mages headaches if they were in the room with the dust and fluff. What happened if they ate it? And why mages? Did it also bother mage-blood, those who were related to mages but who lacked the true gift?

An idea hit Tycho so hard that he stumbled, catching himself with his staff. He looked around for witnesses, and made a show of glaring at the ground and knocking a rock out of the way with the butt of his staff. What if it had been the bread that made the beast-mage so sick, and the other men? And if they ate even more of it, without other things in their stomach, could it kill a mage? Or did the sickness weaken them like hard hunger could weaken a man, leaving him open to other ills?

He turned the ideas over and over in his mind as he returned to where the caravan had settled for the day. Tycho kept his thoughts to himself, although he did inform Yergin and Jens and the others that the priestess had asked them to report contaminated grain to the temple as well as to the market master. “We tell the priests of Maarsrodi if someone is abusing trade rights and claiming protection from the confraternity, so I thought I’d ask if I should do the same with Gember’s crop.”

“Who bothers the gods with things like that?” a beast handler rolled his eyes before returning to mending the harness strap. “They have other things to do.”

Tycho leaned back in case Yergin or one of the guards tried to throw a rock or clod at the man, making the horns as he did. Yergin scowled and pointed at the beast handler with the tip of his eating knife. “Because fouling the goddess’s gift and passing it as good is an insult to the goddess, and if she and her priests get mad, we,” he pointed the knife at himself, “go hungry. It’s not bothering the goddess. It’s telling her hands and eyes here,” knife to the ground, “that someone is abusing her name. I don’t care to be hit by her anger by accident or because she thinks I’ve ignored insults to her good name.”

“Huh.” The man didn’t say anything more as he re-stitched the harness strap.

“So, when do we see real trees again?” Tycho tried to remember the speaker’s name, but it kept slipping out of reach. “I’d like shade I can use.”

“One day from Moahnebrig, the river forest starts.” Jens nodded as Hardrad, their guide and chief wagon master, pointed down the road with his head. “Stay away from the trees with the big flat leaves that look sticky. The sap’s poison, makes your skin blister, and the fruit will kill you. Some people gather it and use it for medicine and dyes, but they have magic and special clothes and metal hats and sap-shields. Leaves are like so, pale green,” he held two hands together, palms down. “No big animals last I heard, but if you see something lumpy in the water get away from the bank or get yourself out of the water fast. But don’t splash. Splashing attracts attention you don’t want.”

“Is that where the lumpy strips of leather used for sturdy trim come from?” Tycho knew they were not embossed, but he’d not seen any pictures of the animal.

“Yes. They are called potodents.” Hardrad stood up from his crouch and walked back down the line of wagons, probably to check on the great-haulers. He rolled from side to side like a ship when he walked, and was one of the few to ride in a wagon most of the time instead of walking. Tycho preferred to ride, but that meant less weight of goods in the wagon. Goods brought money and shoes were comparatively cheap. His winter belly had disappeared already, alas. He missed home food, although he did not miss having Gerta constantly asking him what he’d eaten outside the house.

The next afternoon Tycho and the others saw what Hardrad had meant about the forest. A mass of green appeared as they trudged over the top of a low hill. “Some say at the end of the Great Cold, the river ran so high it left a bank here.” Hardrad pointed with the long whip he used to encourage the great-haulers. “River’s on the other side of the forest, another day and a half, barring trouble.” Tycho thought it looked like one of the illustrations in the temple books, where a forest appeared as a straight green line. The lead great-hauler tossed her head and he peered left and right, trying to see if anything might be hiding in the scattered, chest-high brush. The grass grew better here, and he wondered if something were sneaking toward them through the knee-high grasses and plants. He didn’t see anything, but he stayed watchful, just in case.

As they walked down the slope, motion drew his attention to the sky. A dark shape circled, and another, and another, swirling over a point on the ground not far from the road, if it didn’t bend. “Wonderful. What died?” the beast-handler walking beside one of Yergin’s wagons groaned.

“Don’t know but it probably fell into the only water in the district,” the guard on the outside of the second wagon row said. Groans and rude sounds met his declaration. They’d saved their dead coals in case they had to filter death-fouled or slime-fouled water, but Tycho really did not want to do that if they didn’t have to. His father had made him help clean out a farm cistern that a schaef had fallen into and drowned. The beast had been there some days before anyone checked the water. Tycho had wanted to take some of the stones out of the side of the cistern and just let the water out, but no, oh no. How standing waist deep in water could be hot work Tycho still didn’t quite recall, but he remembered the growing stink as the water level dropped with each bucket he handed up to one of the hired men. Green slime had grown on the sides of the stone-lined cistern, and the stench as it dried made his eyes water just thinking about it. Tycho had decided right then and there that he’d do as well as he could in school and as an apprentice just so he never had to work like that ever again. Maybe he should hire Wiebe out to a farmer and see if that cured his excessive high spirits? Tycho filed the thought away and moved his scarf up higher over his nose to keep out more of the dust.

Whatever had died, it was not on the road, but downwind of the well-trodden dirt way. The great-haulers mantled and hissed at the eaters of the dead as they circled and squabbled over the dead meat. Whatever it was had been large, or there were just that many of the black, bald-headed birds in the area. Tycho did not leave the road to find out what it might have been.

They camped in a caravan plaza just north of the forest that night. Hardrad didn’t want to push through to the first caravan plaza inside the woods. “Won’t be there before night, and I do not want to be getting sorted out in the dark.”

Tycho and some of the others took advantage of the early halt to wash their smallclothes in the troughs provided. “I’m sorry, sirs, but my washer women are just now recovering from an illness,” the manager said, wringing thick, stubby hands. “All but one got the flux and cramps that laid them out for six days and more, couldn’t eat, shook as if with fever chills. The one not sick delivered her baby yesterday and the midwife won’t let her work for at least ten days.” He wrung his hands a little more, adding, “and no fresh mage-lights, sir. So please be careful and rush-lights or lamps will be a quarter vlaat per night.”

He really needed to get wax shipped south, Tycho thought once more. He was glad he’d sent orders to Gerta to that effect. Then he grunted as he wring the water out of his under breeches and two shirts. No wonder washer women looked as if they could carry fish barrels without blinking. Then he remembered the beast-mage on the road into Gheelford, and the guards. The sickness sounded like what had afflicted the beast-mage. Were the women mage-blooded? Tycho started to ask, but the manager wandered off, moaning a little to himself about the cost of spells and the bad harvest and no trade from the south. The guard working beside Tycho rolled his eyes. “And if it rains he’ll worry about river-sickness and flooding, and if the mud will slow the caravans and hurt his custom and make the beer weak,” he mimicked the round man’s speech and the others chuckled.

That evening Tycho faced off against one of the guards. They left their swords sheathed, focusing more on strikes and counters than courtly grace and style.

A horrible noise woke Tycho that night, just as the Southern Ship crossed the arc of the sky. “What’s that?” someone called in the darkness.

“Mgrrwaaa! Snrraaaa!” Then screeches and great-hauler shrieks.

“Torches and blades, you and you,” the lead guard’s voice cut through the commotion.

Hardrad shouted, “Aim behind the eyes and for Yoorst’s sake don’t hit the bird!”

Oh shit. Tycho pulled on a tunic and jammed his feet into his boots, then rushed toward the red torchlight and commotion. He grabbed one of the wall torches as he went, lighting it in the smudge-fire in the plaza’s central yard. Great-hauler screams and men’s shouts ebbed and fell, and something roared, then screamed like dry wooden axles turning against wooden braces. He saw men moving, and birds racing around and around the inside of the stone pen.

“Scavenger take it,” Hardrad snarled, rolling and limping up beside Tycho. He raised his voice, “How many birds hurt?”

“Can’t tell yet, sir. Looks like one dead, two crippled but I’m not getting closer until I’m sure this thing’s dead.” The lead guard sounded angry. “Someone left wood piled against the outside of the pen and the bastard climbed up that and into the corral.”

Two of the beast-handlers pushed past Tycho and climbed over the gate into the pen. They had buckets of feed, and he guessed that they’d be scattering it away from the body, luring the birds and calming them down. “You with the torches, yes you and you,” the guard called. “Bring them here. The rest of you go back to sleep for now unless you’re ready to help move that damned wood away from the pen.”

By Yoorst of the Fields and the Scavenger, the beast was disgusting! It shimmered in the torchlight, as if its dark hide were wet, or it had a slime skin. The smell made Tycho’s stomach churn, and he wasn’t the only one. It was rotting meat and a tanner’s waste and harbor muck all rolled together. He made the horns, warding off any uncleanliness. The claws on one foot were uneven, with one large one and two shorter ones, and a missing digit or a stub digit. “This can’t stay here,” the lead beast-handler stated. He glared from the carcass to the still-frantic great-haulers and back. “And they won’t pull it, Yoorst as my witness.” Which meant the men had to. Tycho wasn’t the only one to groan.

“What happened? What— Yoorst have mercy, those never leave the forest! The beast mages set spells to repel them,” the manager moaned. He wasn’t wringing his hands, because he had a torch in one of them, but he twitched as if he wanted to.

Tycho saw the guard leader frowning, or so it seemed in the torchlight. “Spell didn’t work, or it wore down enough that this thing got through. Climbed the wood piled outside the pen. Now we have to drag it out.”

No one objected when they stopped early the next day. Four of the great-haulers had been clawed or bitten, two had kick-cuts on their bodies from the panic, and the beast had managed to kill one outright and had been eating it when the guards shot it with crossbow bolts and then stabbed it to death. Tycho had lost one great-hauler, with another lightly injured but unable to pull until the slash across its chest healed. If it healed. If the wound did not rot. A beast-healer would be good to have, Tycho sighed to himself as he held the afflicted male’s head steady. The beast-handler smeared honey and sweet-leaf paste onto the cut and made Yoorst’s sign.

Had they offended Raadmar, so that he was turning the wheel against them?

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


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