The Weaver And The Wind
Chapter 7: The Road to Beletara
Copyright© 2006 by Sea-Life
We had camped beside the road the night before, happy to sleep under the stars and near the rocky, rollinging stream that followed this stretch of the road to Beletara. Slider was completely adjusted to life on the road now after a week of travel. Grendel was still wondering where the stable was, but she gently shook off her disappointment at the end of every day. Breakfast was cornbread, re-heated over the fire, and dipped in honey. We drank steaming cups of Cintosa, the Arborian equivalent of coffee.
Like everything the adults of Arbor drank, Cintosa had its origins rooted firmly in the wine industry. It was a combination of grape leaves and a specific fungus called the 'foot of the vine', that only grew on the ground beneath grapevines. Both the leaves and fungus were dried and crushed into a coarse powder, which was steeped in boiling water, just like you would tea. It was both bitter and earthy at the same time, with a slight, peppery aftertaste. Cintosara was a rarer, and some would say more refined, variation of the drink that included the dried skins of the grapes as well as the leaves. Cor and I had adjusted to the beverage quite happily, and we savored our steaming cup as we packed our sleeping skins for the day.
We had been on this road for a week, and we had stopped every time we found something or someone of interest. This meant that we kept running into the same slower but more purposeful travelers every few days or so as we passed them on the road, or they passed us.
Included in their number were the Durmiter family, who were moving themselves, one large wagon and two small carts piled high with all their worldly goods, from Pipertown to Beletara, to join Plank Durmiter's brother Spoke on his goat farm. We found the Durmiters again, just before midday, when we reached Pelec's Crossing.
""Plank! I'm surprised to have caught up to you and your family so quickly, are you all well? Is everything okay?" I asked as we stopped beside them.
"I may have to find work in the area and settle down, at least for a season, before moving on to Beltara, Weaver." Plank answered.
"What's wrong?" Cor asked.
"The bridge at the crossing collapsed a little more than a tenday ago, just after the spring flooding, and they say it will be at least the end of the summer before Prince Verity can send his engineers out to repair it. The local Agent, fool that he is, didn't feel the need to send out riders to the nearest towns on the road to spread the warning."
"So you are stuck here, unable to go forward and without a place to go back to?" I asked.
"Exactly!" Plank spat.
We took the road into the town of Pelec's Crossing itself, and saw the bridge in the distance. We rode in that direction until we were standing at the river's edge. The river itself, known as the Nider, was not wide or deep, but it was fast and uneven, strewn with rocks and boulders. The riverbed itself was full of surprise obstacles and sudden drop-offs. The bridge had been built over a narrow but steeply banked section, and I could see the stones where they had fallen into the river and along the banks. They looked massive and ancient.
"How old was this bridge?" I asked one of the men standing nearby.
"It was first built by old King Margold, twenty generations ago." The older man said, a chew of dried goat meat hanging from his mouth. "It has withstood the annual floods all that time."
"Weaver?" Cor called to me. "What are you thinking?"
"Nothing yet, only wondering."
I hopped down off Slider and made my way slowly down the steep bank. I ignored the chill of the water and waded out to one of the larger stones fallen from the bridge, and put my hands against its cool, wet surface. I let the stone tell me its story, and show me its shared existence as part of the bridge. This was part Light signature and part tapping the Dream Stuff, but I was getting so I blended the two almost unconsciously now when I needed to.
I did this with several other stones, until I found the one I thought was the key. A smaller stone had been used to fill a spot along one side of it, and the mortared stone had been weaker than the original, eventually wearing away from the vibrations of generations of travelers, the shifting seasons and the many moods of the river itself. Finally, missing the support of that worn piece, the stone had shifted slightly under the force of the rising river, and that let the stones around it shift, and that was enough. When the rains died down and the river shrank again, the dry stones failed to keep their grip on each other and down they came!
"I think I can restore the bridge." I told Cor when I got back to the top of the riverbank.
We rode back to where we had seen Plank and his family. His wife Opal and their older son Ketch were setting up their tent in an open field beside the road. Cor and I stopped to help, as the tent was a bit awkward for only two people.
"Where are Plank and Biter?" I asked Opal.
"I sent them to get water and look for firewood. We'll begin the search for something more permanent tomorrow."
"We'll pitch our tent alongside you if you don't mind." I said.
"And don't get your heart set on staying more than a day or two." Cor added. "Weaver has a scheme cooking!"
I did have a tent in Slider's pack, though we had only rarely used it so far. But bedding down for the night so close to the road and with so much traffic in the area made the tent a practical choice.
When Plank and Biter returned from the stream, and with both tents securely up, Cor and I took the boys on a trip back to the riverbank to collect firewood. I pulled a square of canvas cloth and two straps of leather from a pocket of my cloak, and we piled our harvest onto the cloth and secured it with the straps. With Cor and the boy's 'assistance', I hefted it onto my back and we walked back to our campsite.
Plank had a nice fire pit started, and we sent the boys off to the scour the roadside for stones to surround it with.
"You will have midday meal with us, won't you two?" Opal asked. "I'm going to make some Chala Rolls."
"Of course!" Cor answered immediately. "I saw a fruit stand while we were in town, would you all like to have some fresh Roeberries with lunch?
"If you are running off to fetch fruit for lunch, I think I will let Slider show me where to find some fresh meat for dinner tonight." I told her.
Plank offered to come along, but I suggested we needed to leave one grown man around camp at all times to protect our beautiful mates, and that both won me a smile from Opal, but also grudging agreement from Plank. Pelec's Crossing had not left either of us with an impression of wholesomeness.
"Do you not worry about your mate being in town without you?"
"The Wind is her own best protection." I said with intentional mystery as I headed up the hill behind our field, and into the wilderness beyond.
I always gave Slider credit in public for having a nose for finding game. Hunting, when you can send your senses miles in every direction in search of game, and simply tell the game you select to sleep before you arrive and deliver the fatal stroke might seem unfair to some. It certainly would to most folks back on Earth.
Knowing that I could see into the creature's minds, however limited their thoughts were, might also strike some as cruel. But when you can even see the thoughts of a fallen stone, what measure do you use to say 'this is food' and everything else is not? The Gully Hog that I found certainly was not so exceptional an example of porcine achievement that I was going to spare him. I did the basic hunter's dressing of my kill, and made the hog transportable, but I left the rest for Plank.
When I got back, I found Cor and Opal cooking the Chala bread on a large flat stone, which by its look of prolonged use had probably accompanied the Durmiters on their journey. Cor of course was watching everything and soaking it all in. This was the sort of everyday activity that we both soaked up like sponges. Chala bread was a flatbread, made with a coarse ground wheat flour mixed with some ground barley and spiced with a kind of fennel seed. It was a common starter ingredient for many meals, especially for travelers. Chala Rolls in this case were rounds of the Chala layered with thinly sliced cured ham and roasted tomato slices and cheese, which you rolled up and ate like a burrito.
Plank did finish dressing and butchering the Gully Hog. It was quite a bit more meat than we were going to be able to eat, even if we had it for dinner again the next day.
"Weaver, if it is true that we will be on the road to Beletara again sometime tomorrow, we have three choices. We can try and smoke this meat to preserve it for the road, we can throw away what we can't eat while we're here, or we can invite more hungry stomachs to our dinner table. Which would you prefer?"
"Smoking it would be a good, but it would take days to build a good smoker and a lot of work to collect the right kind of wood to make a good smoke. I would vote for finding more mouths to feed."
"I figured that would be your answer. There are others like us stalled by the bridge and camping beside the road. After midday meal I'll send Ketch along to the nearest two or three, depending on their numbers. There is enough meat there for at least three times our current number."
We had a fine lunch. The boys liked the Roeberries, which were like blackberries on steroids. The big black seeds of the berry resembled what would have been considered prime caviar back home, so I could see where the berry got its name. The Chala Rolls were very good, and the wine was what Opal called Arcasta. After lunch we spent some time getting things cleaned up and then sent Ketch off on his errand.
"Tell them the meat and the bread will be provided, and to bring what they can to add to the meal. We'll make it what we call a potluck back home." I told him.
in the meantime, we began to wonder how we could make a table with room for everyone to sit and eat. Eating around the campfire had its appeal, but if we were hosting a meal, we might as well try to be festive and organized. We were still standing there scratching our heads when A tall, thin, almost gaunt looking man with loose red skin that reminded me of an old Chocowinity farmer I'd met once. If this man had been wearing bib overalls he would have stood a good chance of claiming kin to the fellow I remembered.
"Greeting neighbors!" He said as he approached us.
"Well met, Neighbor!" Plank threw back immediately.
"Greetings!" I added.
"Walker Hurthen's the name." He said. "Your boy Ketch just left us headed to the next camp, and I figured to come over to see what needed doing."
"All we're really missing is someplace for everyone to sit." Plank said.
Things snowballed from that point on. There were quite a few groups of people sitting alongside the road, frustrated by the fallen bridge, and after Ketch had invited the Hurthen family and the Felbeu brothers and their two drivers, word began to spread up and down the road. Cork and Fog Felbeu were hauling lumber to the Blue Heron Inn, another 50 miles or so down the road, and the 20 foot long 2x12 rough-cut planks made an excellent table when laid on top of four barrels of Molasses that Shine Regnim and his two sons provided.
It quickly became obvious that there was no way we were going to be able to feed everyone with the Gully Hog. Fog Felbeu bought twelve chickens that Rash Dyvner was carting. He parted with them happily, as he was actually hauling three tons of bricks and glazing sand to the inn, and had bought the chickens on pure speculation when someone offered them at a bargain price. Opal and Cor, along with Walker Hurthen's wife Ginger and two daughters Doe and Sparrow, plucked and cleaned the dozen birds, and after much consideration, decided they didn't have the lard or the pans needed to fry a dozen chickens at once, so instead the women began working on a herbal seasoning rub, and sent the girls to the river looking for something called caper weed.
Shine's two sons, along with the Felbeu brother's drivers, took a small cart back up the road a ways and came back with it piled high with a dark, clay-like mud. I remembered seeing the dark swath of a slide on the uphill side of the road as we were coming in earlier in the day, and wondered if that was where they had found this.
The Caper weed was a plant that I was unfamiliar with, but there were many things on Arbor that didn't have counterparts on Earth. Tall, stringy looking central stalks with tiny mustard-yellow seed clusters at their tops were surrounded by broad, flat leaves that coiled around each other and up, spreading slowly out from the center. The bottom of the plant came together like a head of Romaine lettuce, and had a root ball with long stringy roots, like a green onion, only much larger. Opal chopped the bottom off and then separated the leaves. The little yellow seed clusters were thrown into a bowl with a little wine and mashed into a fine paste. The stalks were laid on a flat stone and beaten with a linen bag filled with some of the clay. They came away from the process limp and stringy.
Once they had all the chicken coated solidly with the rub they had made, a dollop of the caper weed paste was stuck into the cavity of each chicken and then the chicken was wrapped in the flat leaves. They used at least two leaves for each chicken, tying them with the beaten Caper Seed stalks. Once the chickens were all processed to this stage they molded clay shells around every one of them. The entire collection was then thrown into the coals around the edge of the fire.
Opal, Ginger, Doe and Sparrow then began to sing a song, a measured little tune full of puns and word play, centered around the kitchen. They sang it at a conversational volume while they began cleaning up the area they had used for preparing the food. Cor began singing along with them, and I knew she was reading the words and the tunes from the women's surface thoughts.
<They're timing the chicken!> Cor thought to me. <When they finish the song, it'll be time to turn the chicken over, then they'll sing the whole thing again and the chicken is done!>
The process of preparing the chicken for cooking had been fascinating, and I thought then and there that the memory of that experience, and watching that seemingly primitive process with its meticulous steps and careful but almost unnoticeable timing had already made our planned trip to Beletara worth it, all by itself.
By the time we were serving dinner, there were close to 40 people gathered. There were salads and vegetables and pies and pastries. Several people even began playing music once the food was close to gone. A Cuesta and a Zator teamed up, and with the music going strong, people began dancing.
Shine's two boys along with Ketch, kept the two Hurthen sister's dance cards filled, and the two were beaming over the attention.
By the time it had gotten dark, Opal had Biter in bed and some of the other women were putting their youngest to bed as well. This gave the men folk an excuse to sit and sip their wine and speculate on life, the universe and everything.
Walker started the biggest conversational speculation of the night when he mentioned overhearing someone in town saying that he heard someone say they heard from someone else that there was Magic brewing, and the bridge would be whole in the morning.
I let the speculation run on and excused myself to 'answer the call'. I gave Cor a kiss on the cheek and slid into the darkness of the hillside behind our tent.
There were people watching the bridge. Curiosity seekers, mostly. Come to witness the rumored magic. It was dark though, and the river's edge was not a safe place to be at night, so there were not too many there. I sent a wave of sleep to all of them, making sure the two who had been standing were eased to the ground gently, so they wouldn't wake up with injuries.
With my Light-enhanced eyes I had no trouble seeing in the darkness, and I walked to the collapsed end of the bridge and felt with my senses for that key stone I had found earlier in the day. I touched its Light signature, and helped the stone follow its own memory back to when it had first been placed. I pumped a little Light into the stone and then added a little Magic. I let the stone find its old place on its own, and it slowly lifted out of the river and raised itself up to its former position. With another wash of Magic, I asked the stone to call its brothers. I began to paint the stone with Magic, and the stone spat it out in little fingers that sought and found its brother stones. Stones, large and small began lifting themselves out of the water. In my ears the sound of water dripping back into the river sounded like a rainstorm!
I dipped again into the Magic within me and the stones drew themselves up and reformed themselves. The dripping of water was joined by the sound of stone scraping stone until finally the bridge was reformed. The structure seemed almost complete, but with tiny gaps here and there, where pieces had worn or crumbled or washed away.
Now came the hard part. I reached out and found the Dream World, and I pulled a chunk of it into me, and let the Magic take it and slowly, quietly, but bathed with bright, brilliant white light, the Dream Stuff filled and solidified into perfect, seamless stone. One more push of Light and Magic, and I was done.
This was nothing like the Weaving I had done to create the tunnel into the valley, and easily nothing like the Weaving that had made the Tower of the Wind. But this time I had not been able to pull Magic from the deep roots of the land, only a tiny bit from the bridge stones themselves and the river below them. I almost collapsed before I managed to jump myself back into our tent, where I promptly passed out.
I woke in the morning to an image of a smiling Cor, leaning over me, a damp cloth on my forehead.
"Wake up Weaver, you are sleeping through the celebration."
"What?" I mumbled.
"The celebration!" She giggled. Okay, it was coming back to me now. Cor wasn't much of a giggler, so that helped jar me out of my fog.
I washed myself awake with an infusion of Light and got dressed. Cor must have undressed me when she found me asleep in the tent, everything was folded neatly and NeedleThorn was laying on top of the pile.
When I made it outside the tent, I saw all the signs of last night's impromptu feast had been packed up and carted away. Even the Durmiter's tent was down and loaded on the wagon. At least it was still here! It had to be at least two hours past morning meal!
Cor had prepared for my late awakening, there was still a pot of hot water on the fire, and she brought me a mug of Cintosa and a big chunk of our travel bread. The travel bread was special, something we'd brought to Arbor just for the trip. It was made from Seed of Life flour, and it was nutritionally perfect. A bit dry and heavy in this form, but it kept well and was a perfect meal when you didn't have time to stop and cook.
The virtue of traveling by horseback is that it takes very little to get packed up when its time to go. Ketch had been left to guard the family wagon so we told him to tell his parents we were headed to the bridge and on past to Beletara, and perhaps we would see them again somewhere down the road.
The crowds around the bridge were thick, but Cor spotted Biter sticking out of the crowd as he rode on Plank's shoulders, so we made our way over and let them know we'd left Ketch alone at the wagon, but that things were quiet back there and he was probably fine for a while.
"The local officials and every priest and supplicant in town were here this morning making speeches and praying, but they're letting people cross now, so we'll be following along shortly I suppose." Plank said.
"See you in Beletara!" Opal cried out as we began weaving our way through the crowd.
The few men and boys who had been watching the bridge and mysteriously all fallen asleep had achieved the status of local celebrities, at least for the day, and we saw people clustered around them as we made it finally onto the bridge itself.
<You do good work Weaver.> Cor sent to me.
As we crossed the bridge I spotted the old man who had been supervising the packers at the riverbank the day before, still sporting a stick of goat jerky between his teeth, and he spotted me and gave me a beaming grin. Perhaps he had heard more than I'd realized while I was examining the stones and had made the connection.
The bridge at Pelec's Crossing marked a change in the landscape along the road to Beletara. The surrounding land became a bit more arid and the mountains and forests thinned out into bare, rolling hills dotted here and there by rocky outcrops. There were farmers and ranchers every few miles, their homes standing out like beacons on the horizon. None seemed inclined to build near the road itself though.
We found a steady breeze at our back and fair warm skies above us the next two days. That quiet space of days ended just a few miles short of the Zadrain Junction, where the Road to Beletara met the road to White River. We rode unsuspectingly into an armed ambush, as four men on horseback waylaid us as the road passed a small stand of trees. Somehow I had not sensed them!
Aware now that there was nastiness afoot, I sent my senses more consciously to sweep the area. In addition to the four we were approaching, there were two archers in the nearby trees and another two men on horseback set to block our retreat back the way we'd come.
"Hold! We'll take your saddlebags and purses, else someone gets hurt!" A rough-voiced man with a bushy beard said as soon as we were within easy speaking distance.
I swept the four of them and saw that one of them had some Talent, and had probably been responsible for disguising their presence from me as we approached them.
<There are two archers in the trees, and two more horsemen waiting on the road behind us.> I told Cor.
<I sense them. The bug-eyed fellow has some sort of skill, I can feel him probing at me. The fellow speaking isn't the leader either, its the guy with the bad teeth just to his left.>
"I would recommend that you and your men just fade back into the trees and let us be about our business." I said to the man in charge, ignoring the speaker.
"We have you covered and surrounded, give us your valuables!" The speaker said again.
"Listen. I understand your man there was able to slip in a little glamour that kept you hidden during our approach, but neither his skills, your force of arms, or those of the two men on the road behind us, nor those of the two archers you have hidden in the trees is going to help you." I let NeedleThorn jump into my hand and I held it out to my side. "I am Weaver, and this is The Wind, and you have bitten off far more than you can chew."
The bug-eyed fellow must've figured that he had better give it his best shot now, because I suddenly sensed something building up in him, and with a dip of NeedleThorn's tip, I knocked him backwards off his horse, unconscious.
The archers in the trees saw this as a signal, and they fired, each targeting one of us.