Renegade Scene 4

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series The Renegade's Door

283 SC, five days earlier, Starseekers Gathering, in the Great Desert

The late afternoon sun was baking the desert air, quickly evaporating the sweat that stuck Mikel’s coarse tunic to his broad back as he worked. Hemp rope handles creaked against heavy wooden crates as he and another teamster loaded the new cargo into the back of wagon number three.

“Careful Dustin, that one is fragile! Mikel, that’s enough in number three. Put the rest in number two.”

Mikel nodded to the burly Master Merchant. He watched the young teamster with the fragile crate out of the corner of one eye. Dustin stepped gingerly up onto the reinforced bed of the third of four heavy cargo wagons. As Mikel hefted a wicker basket onto one hip, he heard the inevitable crash he had expected from wagon three.

“I said be careful, you ham handed hack!” Jak stormed after Dustin with murder in his eyes. Mikel shook his head wordlessly as he stepped to the back of his own wagon, number two in the line. He eyed the contents which were carefully organized, stacked, and sorted. Mentally gauging the size and weight of the basket on his hip and the remaining packages waiting to be loaded, he visualized the available space in his wagon.

Visual imagery had always been one of his strengths. He cocked his head slightly as he considered. Yes. If he shifted that package to the other side, he could fit this basket there. That would leave room along the floor for the padded roll, and he could wedge the final crate into the gap left there. He set the basket carefully on the tail of the wagon before stepping into the interior. Mikel wasn’t tall, so he could stand fully upright in the wagon’s interior. He made a few rapid adjustments to the stacked goods, removing the lashing that held them in place and re-optimizing the wagon’s loading. He considered both accessibility and proper weight distribution, making sure that the heavier gear was on the left side to offset the wagon’s more heavily armored wall on the right. Like most long range traders, the Nadori only armored one wall of their wagons to save weight. The armored wall would face outward when the wagons were circled to make camp. This left the wagons more vulnerable on the trail, raiders rarely attacked moving targets in broad daylight. Too easy for them to be driven away at speed. Night was the most dangerous time. So the merchants sacrificed a little daytime security for speed of travel. It made a difference, saving two or even three days off a full circuit of the migrations like this one.

When Mikel was satisfied with his repacking efforts, he hopped out of the wagon to retrieve the last two packages. Jak was still giving Dustin an earful as he inspected the dropped crate for damage. “…in this one crate are worth more than your wage for this entire…”

Mikel set the long padded roll on his right shoulder as he dangled the small crate from his left hand. He stowed away the remaining goods, careful to stay out of Jak’s line of fire. When he was with a client, Jak was as jovial as his colorful clothing and robust physique suggested. And he was positively effusive in his role as head cook of the wagon train. But you didn’t want to get in his way when he was angry. The same keen perception that made him such a formidable trader enabled him to eviscerate an enemy with his shrewd wit. Mikel doubted that Jak had ever met the man who could outmaneuver him in an argument. Sparks would fly on the day that he did.
Mikel carefully positioned the basket in the nook he had just opened for it. Then he laid the padded roll along the floor beside it and tucked the small crate at the foot of the roll. He relashed the gear, making sure all of the cargo was secure and stable by giving the wagon bed a slight shake. He closed the large loading door, leaving the small entry door open. You never knew when a trader would have a last minute addition to make, as Mikel had learned the hard way. He turned and leaned against the heavy wooden tailgate, looking out over the gathering. They had spent the last two days here while Jak and his three fellow merchants traded with the eclectic Starseeker tribe.

It was impressive enough, for a desert tribe city. The tribes were nomads for the most part. They called their cities gatherings, because their people didn’t really live there. They met there to exchange goods on their way from one hunting or foraging foray to the next. Sometimes they would trade with merchants from far away. But they would decline to trade with outsiders on principle alone more often than not. Trading with deep desert tribespeople was a risky financial venture. It was also a physically dangerous one, even if the merchant could afford a large wagon train with hired guards, like the Nadori clan that had hired Mikel.

So Mikel was more than a little surprised to see a lone woman in a white tunic and leggings. She walked purposefully toward the wagon train, leaving behind the safety of the sandstone buildings that huddled under the overhanging cliff ledge. She was small, with nut brown, shoulder length hair, an apple shaped face, and large eyes. Her face was the palest shade of white Mikel had ever seen. She couldn’t have been a tribesperson, with skin like that. Mikel tried not to stare as she approached.

“Master Merchant Jak, I see you haven’t gotten underway yet. Whatever could be keeping you?”

Mikel saw the merchant tense his shoulders as he turned away from dressing down Dustin. “Ahh. Eliza wasn’t it? What is it you want? I told you before that the Nadori do not take passengers!”

Mikel busied himself checking and rechecking to make sure all of his lashings were secure. But he glanced surreptitiously at Jak. Something about this pint sized woman had piqued the merchant’s curiosity.

“Oh yes. You made that quite clear. I came to offer you a chance to reconsider.”

“Me reconsider? And why would I do that?”

“Desert crossings are a dangerous business, Master Merchant. You never know when you might need a medicine woman. I could be an invaluable asset.”

“More like an outlandishly expensive one. One thing I don’t need… excuse me a moment.” Jak interrupted the conversation as Tobias, one of the junior merchants appeared at his elbow with a clipboard. Jak flipped through the tally sheets, mumbling under his breath. When he reached the end of the sheets his eyebrows lowered like storm clouds. He flipped back through the papers a second time, shaking his head.
Mikel watched the merchant’s antics furtively. With a start, he realized that Eliza was doing the same. He watched her as she stared at the merchants lips. Almost too late, he turned back and reached out with a touch of elemental air power to snatch the merchant’s whispered words back to his ears. He only caught the end of the exchange.

“…get the stones?”

“No Master Merchant. They wouldn’t…”

“Never mind! Go make yourself useful and ready the crew carrier!” With the last sentence, Jak slapped the clipboard against Tobias’s unprotected chest. Even without his elementally boosted hearing, the meaty thwack of impact would have reached Mikel’s ears clearly. Jak was not pleased. The junior merchant fumbled at the clipboard, barely managing not to drop it as he darted away.

“Now then… I believe you were just leaving Eliza?”

“Oh quite. Shame about those gemstones though…” Eliza batted her eyes innocently as she turned to go. Mikel’s eyes narrowed. How had she overheard Jak’s whispered conversation? Was she a mage too?

“Wait! What did you say?”

“Oh did I say that out loud? I was just thinking to myself… it was nothing.”

“What does a medicine woman know about gemstones?”

“Nothing in particular. Just that the amethysts of the Starseeker tribe are the most sought after gems from Thayer all the way to Velton. Second to none, if you believe the stories.” Eliza had turned back to the merchant.

Mikel couldn’t believe his eyes. Was this healer trying to sell a Master Merchant? More importantly, was he buying?

“You said it was a shame. What’s a shame?” Jak’s tone sounded indifferent. But Mikel heard the hidden interest it masked.

Eliza must have heard it too. She grinned as she played her trump card. “The Starseekers don’t sell their amethysts. Especially not to plainsmen. But I’m sure you knew that already, Master Merchant.”

Disdain wrinkled Jak’s features. “Then how have such gems ended up in the hands of crafters from Thayer to Velton, as you point out?”

“Second hand, Master Merchant. How else?”
Jak’s jaw worked slowly, his eyes never leaving the pale healer’s face. Eliza smiled her sparkling smile and then continued.

“Here’s the deal. I’ll get you something you want. A pouch of real, uncut, Starseeker amethysts, for example. In return, you give me something I want.”

“Hah. You’ll never get the stones!”
Eliza smiled sweetly. “Maybe you’re right. You’re out nothing if I fail.”

“And if you succeed? What is it that you want, medicine woman?”

“I told you… passage to Stoneburners Gathering with your wagon train.”

“I told you. The Nadori don’t take passengers.”

“Then consider me crew. You really don’t have anything to complain about, Master Merchant. If I succeed, you’ll get the best medicine woman north of Mystic Springs on retainer.”

“And refreshingly modest, I can see.”

“Are you in or out?” Eliza stared the merchant in the eye and didn’t bat a lash. Mikel had to grin. This woman was something else.

“Even if you could make good on your offer, I don’t have time for you to find a seller. We leave at dawn.”

“I wouldn’t dream of delaying you Master Merchant. Surely you wouldn’t turn away an innocent traveler who only asks to share your long journey?”

“Suit yourself. If you can get me even five good stones, you ride with us.”

“Done.” Eliza nodded curtly, turned on her heel and sauntered back into the Gathering.

Jak watched her go, standing with his hands on his hips, fuming. He caught Mikel staring at him as he worked. The portly merchant rolled his eyes and gave a theatric sigh. “Stop pretending to tighten those straps and ask already Mikel.”

Mikel chuckled under his breath. The merchant was sharp. Hopefully not too sharp for his own good. It wasn’t healthy to be too observant around Mikel. “What’s the story with the gems?”

“Ahh… Starseeker amethysts. Legendary clarity and brilliance. Renowned all across the Fertile Plains. Famous over the length and breadth of the Great Desert. Coveted even in the foothills of the Barrier Mountains.” Jak stalked over to the wagon as he spoke and settled his bulk onto the tailgate next to Mikel, a wistful look in his eye.

“But they’re just gemstones, right?”

Jak snorted in exasperation. “Try telling that to my wife!”

Mikel’s eyes widened. “You’re married?”

Jak tipped Mikel a conspiratorial wink. “Of course I am! Why do you think I travel so much?”

Caught off guard, Mikel chuckled in spite of himself. This was a side of the Master Merchant he had rarely seen these past ten days on the dusty road.

“My Carina has had her heart set on a Starseeker amethyst necklace for ‘turns. I know a Master Crafter in Thayer who owes me a favor. He’ll make the settings for me.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I can’t get my hands on the flaming stones! Three ‘turns I’ve been searching for the right set. I know the traders here have some. But they won’t trade them, no matter what I bring to barter. These tribesmen… they can be so…”

“Primitive?”

Jak looked sideways at Mikel. “Far from it. I was thinking mysterious.”

“Unh.” Mikel kept his thoughts to himself. Such opinions were the reason the Council of Doormakers was keeping such a close eye on deep desert traders like Jak.

“Take a look at the Gathering here and tell me what you see.” Jak turned his round face toward the city, where glittering lights were just beginning to wink back toward the setting sun from a handful of square adobe windows.

“Shelters thatched out of mud and sand beneath a large natural cliff ledge.”

“Is that all? You should look deeper. Always a lot more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye, you know.”

Mikel shrugged noncommittally. He also saw a moderately defensible fortification with a highly exposed approach, but he kept those observations to himself. They weren’t the kind of thing a teamster would be expected to notice.

“What the…” Jak stood abruptly as a two figures left the Gathering through the high entrance gate. The first was Eliza, except now she wore a calf length traveling cloak of light gray wool over her white tunic and breeches. She carried a long staff of polished birch as well. The second figure was much shorter, more heavily laden, and furrier. It was a sturdy pack goat. Mikel had heard of them before but never seen one. The animal stood waist tall on Eliza, with a black face, a white and black tuft of beard beneath her chin, and long curving horns that sprouted from her triangular head. Her forelegs were black as well, but she had flanks of mixed white and tan. She carried two heavily loaded wool bags draped across her withers, held in place by a web of leather straps. If the weight bothered the creature she showed no sign of caring, as she walked gamely along beside the petite healer.

“Master Merchant, I believe Sasha here has something you’re looking for.” Eliza and the goat came to a stop a few paces in front of the glowering Jak.

“What is the meaning…”

Eliza interrupted Jak by pulling a small pouch out of the goat’s pack and spilling its contents into her palm. The amethysts glittered like cold purple stars in the last of the fading sunlight. She rolled them around on her palm for a moment before sliding them back into the pouch and tying the drawstrings tightly. “Now about our agreement…”

“What… how did you… where…” Jak’s eyes were large and luminous behind his crystal spectacles.

“I believe the terms were the amethysts in exchange for passage to Stoneburners Gathering with your wagon train, right?” Eliza dangled the pouch between her fingers, swinging it back and forth in front of the amazed merchant’s eyes.

Jak crossed his arms across his chest. “How did you get those?”

Eliza smiled sweetly and wagged her finger. “Not part of the deal, remember?”

Jak blew a frustrated breath out through his nose into his goatee. “Neither was that pack animal.”

Eliza shrugged and started to turn away. “Oh well. I suppose I can find someone else who will take these stones off my hands.”

“Wait!” Jak glared furiously.

“So. Do you want the stones or not?”

Jak held out his palm. “All right. You win. We leave at first light, and you’d better not slow us down.”

Eliza dropped the pouch into the merchant’s fist. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Mikel couldn’t suppress a chuckle. Jak turned his glare in the teamster’s direction.

“So you think it’s funny? She’ll be riding with you!” Jak shook his head and stomped away to see that the crew carrier was ready for their departure.

Eliza offered Mikel a petite hand. “I’m Eliza, healer and medicine woman from Guardian Village.”

Mikel took her pale hand in his dark almond one and nodded politely. “I’m Mikel, one of Jak’s teamsters.”

Eliza looked at Mikel’s hand and raised an eyebrow marginally. “Is that so?”

“If you have any gear you can stow it in the back.”

She nodded amiably before hopping up onto the wagon’s raised bed. She cast an admiring eye over Mikel’s handiwork as she searched for a suitable place for her gear. She tucked her staff, cloak, and one small satchel under the bench near the front of the cargo space. She reached for Mikel’s hand as she stepped back out through the small door.

“So. Why wouldn’t the Starseekers sell those stones to the Master Merchant?”

Eliza looked up into Mikel’s dark brown eyes with a discerning look. “He had nothing they wanted.”

“And what did they want from you?”

Eliza paused for a moment before answering. “We all have our secrets to keep, now don’t we Mikel?”

Mikel suffered a moment of doubt as he wondered what she meant. But then she smiled at him guilelessly and the moment passed. This assignment just got more interesting. Or maybe he was getting paranoid. “Welcome to the Nadori Wagon Train.”

3 Responses to “Renegade Scene 4”

  1. [...] scene order to make the main story line/flashback model more consistent throughout. And I posted one more scene in the Writer’s Lair for my online readers. [...]

  2. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  3. Thanks Chris. I’m looking forward to writing more, and with any luck publishing too! For those of you looking for insightful discussion on all kinds of marketing, be sure to check out Chris’s website at http://www.everydaymarketingideas.com/.
    Cheers