Chapter 12 Scene 7

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 54 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Devon emerged from the cistern tunnels dripping mud and shivering with cold. The well near the south village gate was in a small square, shaded by the boughs of an ancient oak tree. It was cloaked in its autumn robes of red, orange and gold. And much like the temperatures, the leaves were falling.

Devon watched a single leaf, red as flame, as it broke free in the wind and pin-wheeled down to the courtyard near his feet. The area around the well was already littered with many such leaves. Devon knew that soon the entire courtyard would be covered. The cistern in this courtyard was not used often, so no one would sweep away the leaves until they really began to pile up.

After the Bazaar, the village children would come to tucked away nooks like this one where enough dry leaves had accumulated to rake into a deep pile. Then they would run through them or jump from the tree branches into the crinkling mass, shrieking with delight.  But for now the courtyard was empty, as Devon had hoped it would be. He cleaned himself up as much as he could manage. There was no way to dry his clothes, so he settled for wringing them out over the well instead. This still left him damp and shivering, but it could not be helped until he got back to the camp. He would just have to keep moving if he wanted to get warm.

Returning his pack to his back, he carefully picked his way across the courtyard to a narrow opening in the southwest corner. This seemed like a blind alley, but Devon knew better. Many of the buildings in this part of the village were actually built right up against the south village wall. This narrow alley led to an old staircase that accessed the battlements. Devon worked his way up the tight spiral steps that would upward inside the wall. He slowed as he neared the top, ears straining for the sound of voices, footsteps, or any other sign of observers. Hearing nothing, he risked ducking his head around the last turn.

This section of the wall was empty. So he crept out into the light and looked warily out over the village and the mountains to the north. The murmurs of distant voices from the market square were barely audible. They blended into the insistent rumble of wagon wheels and the contented lowing of livestock. Devon heard all the sounds he had grown to associate with his small but industrious community. Turning his back on the village, he looked out toward the Great Desert.

Far to the south, the dunes rolled from horizon to horizon. This monotonous view was broken only by a sinuous ribbon of hard packed sand road, one of the Migrations traveled by the Desert Tribes and anyone bold enough to risk a desert crossing. The Migration ended where the Barrier Mountains began. It emptied into a broad plain where the sands gave way to stony soil spotted with rough grasses and thistle. The road to Guardian Village arose from the northern edge of the plain. It wound through switchbacks as I navigated rocky ledges that rose up from the edge of the desert like rows of serrated teeth. The vegetation changed to coarse brush and sparse trees as you climbed higher into the foothills. Above the village, dense forest carpeted the shoulders of the mountains, thinning again near the top to expose craggy peaks.

Devon could see a wagon train still setting up camp on the southern part of the plain below. A second wagon train was parked closer to the village, not setting up an encampment, but waiting to be loaded for departure. With four wagons of the same design and construction, this was probably Factor Dorian’s transport. Devon scanned the length of the Guardian Village road from its mouth on the desert plain up to the open village gates down the length of the wall to his right. It was empty. If the new wagon train was here for the Bazaar, they would send messengers up the road soon to reserve places in the market.

He slipped over the edge of the wall and carefully climbed to the ground using toe and finger holds in the loose mortar between the stones. Span by span, he crept down through the rocky ledges toward the eastern edge of the clearing. His progress was slow, painstaking, and deliberate. He chose a route that would keep him out of sight of the wagon trains and any viewers on the wall above as much as possible. And he moved slowly so as not to raise a dust cloud that would alert anyone to his presence. It was not easy. In several places he had to lower himself over high ridges of rough stone with a length of rope from his pack. He dared not leave the ropes in place, so his return trip would be even less direct.

At last he reached the edge of the desert plain. He was still wet and chilled through from his swim through the cistern tunnels. And the winds blowing in off of the desert down here were laden with sands that stung his face and hands. The plain was a large irregular circle, with room for thirty to forty wagons and supporting camps. To hear Old Max tell the tale, Guardian Village had once been the trading hub of the North. Devon had difficulty imagining such a thing. He knew of a few scattered settlements and isolated mountaineers like Lorn and his father in the Barriers. But how could Guardian Village be a hub when there were no other cities to speak of? The Bazaar hadn’t drawn large wagon trains in many ‘turns. Perhaps it never would again.

He thought about approaching the wagon trains from the desert side, but discarded the idea immediately. A quick look southward proved his fears. There was no cover out there. Approaching from the north was no better. With the handful of wagons in the new train setting up camp well away from the edges of the plain, Devon could not approach the camp from any direction without being seen immediately. How would he get the information Fronek needed?

As he circled toward the road, he watched the new wagon train unpacking its camp for the night. He counted seven wagons. He could tell even from this distance that three of them were a matched set. They had solid wheels with sturdy axles and stout, high sides, well suited to bearing heavy loads. Each had a large icon painted on it side. There were two large pavilion style tents next to these wagons. Their bright canvas was tightly stretched over high frames. A blue and white pennant fluttered from the central mast of the larger tent. Devon suspected that it showed the same icon as the matched wagons, but he could not see any of them that clearly.

He continued to circle warily toward the road, catching occasional glimpses of figures bustling around the unfolding camp. Several smaller tents were being set up. Devon could see teams of draft lizards staked out around the camp and attentive teamsters moving among them. He could also see that other wagons were less grand but similarly designed for cargo.

Devon stopped moving and stared at the line of wagons again. No, he had not imagined it. One of the wagons he now saw was much different than the others. It rode lower to the sands. Its small diameter wheels were spoked instead of solid. Devon could see that its low side profile and wide rims made it particularly suited for use in high desert winds on the loosely packed sands of the Migrations. He carefully noted this detail to include in his report to Fronek. He wasn’t sure what it might mean, but he had almost overlooked it.

All too soon, he was as close to the road as he dared to go. But he was still not close enough to identify the new caravan. He counted the wagons, the tents, the number of draft lizards, and all of the people he could see. He noted the colors and styles of their clothing, though this was difficult from such a distance. The sun had slipped silently closer to the horizon when he finally admitted that he had all the information he would be able to get without being seen. Hopefully it would be enough for Fronek to use.

He was preparing to circle back into the foothills to the east when he noticed a group gathering in the camp. Devon counted ten people, but there may have been one or two more. He could not see all of them at once from his current vantage point. Braving discovery, he moved closer by ducking around a cluster of fallen boulders. He flattened himself against the eastern side of the stones and peered into the heart of the camp. He now had an unobstructed view between two of the wagons, but he was visible if anyone from the camp chose to look too closely. He stilled himself against the stone as much as he could as he watched.

It was an argument, clearly. A heavyset man in gleaming robes of blue and white seemed to be in the center of the controversy. Two stout looking men stood behind him, dressed in more serviceable dark colors but each wearing an armband of the same blue and white. Mr. Blue and his thugs seemed to be listening dispassionately as three slightly less ostentatiously dressed travelers shouted, waved, and gestured in his face. One was a willowy looking woman spangled with beads and trimmings whose glitter could no doubt be seen from the highest peak of the Barriers. She pointed to Mr. Blue’s two thugs and shook her head before pulling a smartly dressed youth out from the crowd with a proud flourish. Madam Sparkle evidently set off the sturdy fellow next to her who was dressed in somber shades of brown. Farmer Brown pointed to the village before throwing his hands in the air and indicating a second fellow dressed in browns and yellows. The final contestant was a short man, with a broad chest and shoulders that strained at his green leathers. Sir Belligerent barreled into the middle of the argument and pointed at each of the instigators in turn before pointing to the ground where he stood and shaking a fist.

Devon couldn’t make out their faces, and although he could hear voices when they raised them in a shout, he could not make out any of the words. He thought they might be arguing over which messengers to send to the village, but could not understand why. From the look of things, he was not alone.

As the argument raged on, Devon noticed three others clustered near the shouters. A muscular woman loomed over a gray bearded man in dun colored robes so pale they were almost white. They were both talking to a third man, who held his hands comfortably behind his back as he looked from one to the other. When Graybeard and Lady Formidable finished talking, he looked at them both for a moment before nodding. Mr. Shrewd turned and beckoned to someone out of Devon’s sight.

Meanwhile Graybeard and Lady Formidable had turned their attentions to the argument that looked like it would soon come to blows. Graybeard shook his head and stepped into the fray, betraying the lively energy of a whirlwind that made Devon revise his estimate of the man’s age. He breezed in and calmed the debate temporarily. He talked to each of the instigators in turn until they he had them nodding along with him. Then he swept his hand out in an introductory gesture and Mr. Shrewd stepped grandly into the open circle.

Mr. Shrewd was clearly a master negotiator, able to sooth the hottest temper without seeming to. He laid a hand on Sir Belligerent’s arm and eased him to the side. Then he turned to Madam Sparkle and graciously kissed her hand as he led her and her envoy to the other side. He shook hands firmly with Farmer Brown and his son, talking with them animatedly as they stepped into the final position. And before any of them knew what was happening, they were standing in an arc to receive the proposal that Mr. Shrewd was clearly laying out. Devon watched in awe as Mr. Shrewd engaged each of the combatants. He soon had them nodding along with him as he gestured grandly to the wagons, the road, and the village beyond it. What’s more, he had them turning and nodding to each other as well. Only tantalizing fragments of the speech were carried to Devon’s straining ear, but it must have been magical indeed. Even from this distance he found himself entranced by Mr. Shrewd’s performance.

He listened intently, desperately wishing Shrewd’s voice would come closer to him so he could hear whatever magic the man was pouring into their ears. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard the seductive whisper of flames, and a response from a voice that was both the sigh of the morning breeze and the roar of the fiercest storm. And then he felt the air stirring around him. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck, and suddenly he felt prickles of sweat form on his forehead despite the chill in the air. A fragment of a sentence drifted to him, whole and coherent as nothing he had heard before.

“…personally guarantee that all of Riverton’s traders will have their fair…”

Dark spots danced in front of Devon and his vision narrowed to a tunnel as he dropped his head to the sands and shook it like a dog. Now sweat ran down his face in earnest even as chills wracked his limbs. Grateful that he had already been lying down in the deepening shade of the pile of stones, he breathed slowly but deeply until the spots faded from his sight. When he looked back up, the discussion was ending. Mr. Shrewd had selected one of Mr. Blue’s goons and the lad in brown and yellow to join a third messenger. Shrewd’s choice was slim, and well dressed in traveling gear that conveyed a combination of efficiency and taste. Shrewd laid a hand on the messenger’s shoulder as he gave his final directions. The new recruit gave a courteous nod, and then strode out of the camp toward the village. The other two messengers fell into step behind him without hesitation.

As the messengers began the climb up the winding road to the open village gates, Shrewd led Blue, Belligerent, and Sparkle back toward the center of the camp. Devon heard the occasional peal of laughter as the group withdrew. Lady Formidable paused halfway between the group of Riverton merchants and the scene of the argument. She looked over her shoulder at Graybeard with her head cocked sideways. But the old man shook his head and waved her off into the camp. His face was turned toward the village. He must be watching as the messengers toiled up the Guardian Village road.

Devon froze as he realized that Graybeard was not watching the messengers. He had been facing toward the village before Shrewd sent the messengers on their way. His nose was lifted into the breeze like a hound scenting its prey. He was scanning the hills between the camp and the village. He was searching for… something. Was it possible that the old man was searching for Devon? Had he been discovered? He made himself as small as possible, trying to still the sudden racing of his heart. Had he left any trace in the hills that would be visible from the camp? Surely he had not been so careless!

Graybeard’s gaze came to rest on Devon’s hiding spot. If it was possible to disappear into the dirt Devon would have done it at that moment. But the old man’s gaze only lingered for a few moments before traveling on. Then he shook his head once as if to clear it before turning and walking back around the edge of the camp. Devon watched him carefully until he stooped into a small tent next to the low profile wagon with wide rimmed wheels. He barely allowed himself to breath as he slunk back up the ridge and began the long return trip around the village outside the eastern wall.

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