"Hey Eldon. Any chance I could borrow a horse, and do you know where I can find Crimson and her smuggler friends?" Fean grinned up at the tall wizard. Was he going to take much persuasion?
"Old Gods. Take Spark. Please. And do you know how to get to Ash? Crimson lives there."
"Eeps! That won't work!"
"Didn't think so. Your best bet is to meet them in the Maze. Anyhow, they generally start their first runs just before the Equinox, so they're probably out there right now. You know how you branch off from the main track to get here? If you go . . . "
The directions didn't do her a lot of good. She was lost and circling around cursing when she caught a whisp of thought. ::Hello? Crimson, is that you?::
A suspicious silence.
She tried again. :: This is Fean Withione. I've gotten lost trying to follow Eldon's directions.::
Peals of laughter. She spun around, and there they were. Eight people and twenty four horses.
"How did I miss seeing you!"
Crimson grinned as she nudged her horse forward. "We're naturally unnoticeable, and then we put charm webs on all the horses. What are you doing out here, and depending on a man's direction?"
"I wanted more lessons. You witches are One damned good. Eldon said you'd be coming or going about now, so I took a stab at finding you." She eyed the pack train and shook her head. "No wonder you're so successful. Can you teach me that web? Will you?"
Crimson shrugged. "Sure. Any friend of Betelgeuse's and all that. We’ll trust your alterior motives won’t hurt us."
Fean winced. "Well I’m also trying to map out this maze and see if we can slip spies into other worlds. Especially the Earth."
"Ha! Knew it. There is supposed to be a connection to Earth somewhere, but we’ve never found it. C'mon. When we camp tonight we'll make you and Spark some invisible talismans to wear."
Fean grinned. "Can I make them?"
Crimson rubbed her round tummy. "Certainly. We'll turn you into a proper witch yet."
They also morphed their looks. And hers. "So we fit in, on each world. So no one notices us." They also showed her what they'd brought. Steel tools. Good hardened hand tools. "A little bit of gold goes a long ways on most of the Earth Books. We'll swap these in a world that has barely subsistance agriculture for furs. The furs we swap for grain and preserved meat on a world with mechanized agriculture and a seriously wild party culture. Very affluent, fur coats all the rage. The food – and a few tools and a bunch of magic potions and charms – we take to a world, umm, stronger tribes pushed this particular tribe off their land, left them to starve. They trade gold and raw gemstones for food and livestock. We used to bring cattle and such, but it was a real risk. Fortunately they bred up their herds enough that we could stop. We'll leave the pack horses there, though. We buy new ones every trip and make a profit on them."
"Oh." Fean threw a guilty look at Spark.
"Oh, don't worry. We keep our riding horses. Not that Eldon hasn't been trying to give that horse away for years." Crimson giggled. "We rarely buy his horses, we don't want to spread the magic genes too far. There a good auction in Bleakers Knob where we buy most of our stock. The riding horses are magic, of course. Very fast and smart. It comes in handy, now and then."
The further they got from the mountains, the less glad anyone was to see them.
Idlo admired the well built village as Obsi tried to drop off fertilizer. Good wooden construction, some log cabins, but more sawn boards on a frame. The rock chimneys looked to be well built and carefully mortared. There was glass in the windows in nearly every house he could see. Their fields had looked good as they drove in.
"Make them grow faster, have bigger seed heads." Obsi was sounding exasperated. Not used to being told to just go away.
This must be the place. The village that deals directly with the smugglers.
Idlo strolled off, watching the people and animals around him. The cattle in a small corral were long haired. The horses tied to the rail, slick coated. A bay and a dark chestnut, no markings on either of them. He eyed the other horses out on the street. No markings, not a sock or blaze to be seen. Must be a breed characteristic.
A trio of children ran by. Boys, wearing shorts, bare footed and bare chested, they made him shiver just to look at them. Spring wasn't far enough advanced for truly warm days. They all wore thongs around their necks, with two metal disks threaded on them. He eyed a pair of girls, well dressed in the Oner style. Thong and disks, looking crude and out of place.
A sign with a stag's horn on it advertized a tavern. He stepped in. Plank tables, benches, barrels, one with a tap. "Beer?" The grubby man with the apron got up and grabbed an ordinary glass from a shelf and filled it. "Two pin." He didn't hand it over until he'd gotten the two pins, either. Like the natives, Idlo had taken to carrying them stuck through a folded bit of thin leather. Like all forms of money, their purchasing power now vastly exceeded their intrinsic value.
The man was wearing a thong around his neck, half a dozen disks on it.
"Noticed the kids wearing those. What are they?"
The man turned away. Idlo shrugged and found a bench. The tavern was almost empty, mid day. He sipped his warm beer in peace, looking out the open double door.
An old man looked him over carefully. "They're tribal. Good luck." He fingered his own. It held four of the disks. He made a show of draining his already empty glass.
Idlo took the hint. "Buy you another?"
By the third drink, they were good buddies. "See? This one cured my toothache last winter. The Shaman makes them, his Spirit Guide brings the magic."
Idlo got uncomfortably close to the old man's breath, and reached to examine the disk. It gave the unmistakeable zing of true magic. A picture of a molar, a hole drilled off center for the thong, and full of magic. Solid gold.
"One damn me. Cure the toothache?"
"Aye, and this one the cough. The other two, they're for trading or selling. See? Keeps mosquitoes away. And helps crop grow. I don't hardly need 'em. Mosquitoes don't much bother with me, and I'm a hunter, not some damned dirt grubber. But we don't trade them outside the tribe. Can't offer you one. Sorry." Lips peeled back from stained, but otherwise strong looking teeth as the old man laughed. And slowly leaned back and slid to the floor. Idlo wasn't sure but that he wasn't snoring before he made it all the way down.
He left the old drunk in peace and strolled on down the main street. He might have wobbled a bit. And staggered around a corner onto a new street. He propped himself against a corral fence and tried to remember an anti-drunk spell. A big black horse walked up to the fence and wuffed at him. :: I like beer too. ::
"Sorry, didn't bring any with me." Idlo winced. "Oh man, I only had three and I'm talking to a horse." He pushed away from the fence and eyed the big house, bigger barn. Very prosperous looking. Two teenage girls walked past, giving him a wide berth. He straightened self-consciously and headed back the way he'd come. I am not a drunk, staggering about the street, but perhaps I'd better not drive.
:: Riding's always more fun. :: the horse said.
"One! That beer didn't taste that strong."