Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 12

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 12

Chapter 11

The street was dark and still. The soft rain fell, and the cloud blanketed any hint of pre-dawn that might be lurking. Since the gleeman had snuffed the candle and left it in the hall, Meb had followed him more by sound and feel than anything else. She was terrified that she’d lose him. So terrified she’d taken a hold of his cloak-edge. She was sure that no real ‘prentice boy would have done that. They were all big and brave and generally bad. But it was very comforting, and her new master had not complained. She was still very much in frightened awe of him. She could hardly believe what they’d done the night before . . . .

“The gates will still be locked,” she pointed out. But he would know that.

“True,” he replied cheerfully. “But we have work to do.”

“What? I mean . . . not burning anything down is it?” she asked suddenly wary.

That amused him by the snort of laughter. “Perhaps later. Right now we turn our cloaks around and visit a cart-shed. How are you with carts, Scrap?”

It seemed she had a new name. Well, “Meb” was a sure give-away of her sex. “I don’t know how to drive a cart,” admitted Meb. Being a cart-driver was a high ambition for a boy from a fishing village. For a girl like her it was just not to be thought of.

“It’s fine,” said her new master. “You won’t be driving. You’ll be jumping down and picking up the buckets.”

“Buckets?”

“A town this size needs to dispose of its nightsoil somehow, Scrap,” he explained. “Or it would have poisoned itself even more completely by now. Now, you just stay here until I call you. This is not the kind of trick you are ready to learn just yet.”

So Meb found herself standing alone under a dripping eave. After a while she began to wonder if he’d gone off and left her there. She couldn’t blame him, and whatever he was going to do next would be terrifying, but being deserted here was just as terrifying.

She didn’t even hear him come back. He could move very silently. “This way. Here, take hold of my cloak again.”

He led her on, through a creaking gate and to a chink of light. It proved to be coming from a crack in the door of a barn. It must have been a very strong light, Meb realized as it had to fight its way past the stench that also came out of the crack. Tarport-town stank. This made that reek seem like perfume. The jester pulled the door open to reveal an elderly two-wheeled cart, with high sides. “Nightsoil cart,” said the jester unnecessarily.

Meb had never met one before. But the cart could be identified by its smell. “Do . . . do we have to travel inside that?”

“Fortunately not! Help me hitch the donkey up. Then there is a smock over there next to the wall. Change into that. Save your kit.”

Donkeys were unpleasant, uncooperative, and frightening too, Meb discovered. Well, they were to her. The donkey seemed to be afraid of her master, if not of her. Still, at least Finn knew what they were supposed to be doing. And he chased her off to change while he adjusted the harness. She had been wondering how she was going to do that. The answer was: very quickly, behind the cart. “Come hold the donkey’s head while I change,” he said, when she’d barely done. So she did. She was allowed to sit on the seat next to him, as the cart trundled out of the yard. There was just enough light to see now. It made her feel very grand indeed sitting on the seat of a cart, even a noisesome one like this. But as she soon discovered that she didn’t get to sit for long. The donkey knew its route, and Meb was soon leaping down to pick up the buckets of filth and tip them over the high sides into the tar-lined bin of the cart. She soon became aware that gutting fish was not the worst job on earth after all.

They even went past the remains of Lord Zuamar’s tax hall. The square was over-run with soldiers. The Lord Zuamar’s officials were grubbing around the ashes and masonry like frantic ants. “Where do you think you’re going?” demanded a captain as the donkey plodded into the square, ignoring his soldiery as only a donkey can.

“Here to collect the nightsoil, general,” said Finn, bobbing his head. “’tis my job.” He sounded like a half-wit, suddenly.

The officer rolled his eyes . . . and held his nose. “So I can smell. Go away.”

“I can’t do that. ‘Tis my job. Junior clerk Mr. Panjar will have my guts for garters,” said Finn, stubbornly edging the donkey forward.

“Go away before I send your guts back to him without the rest of you,” said the officer.

“You’ll give me a chitty to say I was here?” said Finn, looking helplessly at him. “I can’t go otherwise. ‘Tis my job, see.”

“Oh lord. Yes.” The man scrawled on a piece of paper and held it out. Finn prodded Meb in the ribs. She was nearly frozen with terror. “Fetch it, boy.”

So she did.

“Now get yourself and your donkey and the cart out of here!” said the officer.

They did, although the donkey did not like a change in the route at all.

They were soon back on its familiar route, and Meb was heaving buckets. Finn had relieved her of the note. He must be able to read and write, Meb realized, to her surprise. He had, it would seem, a quill and ink with him in that pouch.

They worked on. The cart plainly only worked the better part of town, and the donkey and cart was soon trundling along near brim-full to the city gate.

The guards were checking every vehicle and person out of the city. It was apparent they weren’t too sure just what they were searching for. But they were turning a fair number of ordinary people back.

“What have you got there?” asked the guard.

Finn stood up and scooped a bucket full. “All the treasure we looted from the tax hall,” he said, waving it under the guard’s nose. “Do you want some?”

“None of your lip or I’ll run you in,” said the guard.

Finn was not impressed. “You bugger off or I’ll give you this lot up your snout.” He held out the piece of paper. “Here. From Captain Flesch. We’ve got a permission to go and dump our load. Unless you want to search it. Stick your spears through it in case we’ve got thieves on the cart. Maybe have a feel for the gold in the bottom, eh?

The guard peered at the bit of paper. “Get along with you. And don’t give me any more trouble,” he said with an attempt to show that he was really in control of the situation.

So they got. Meb could scarcely believe it, as the donkey plodded slowly out of the gates and onto the main pike next to the canal. The water still looked filthy. But she itched to jump into it and wash and wash. The donkey knew where it was going and soon they branched off the pike road and onto a track to a sandy field near the sea. There were two men there with wooden shovels, resting next to a tree. They got up when they saw the cart. “You took your time,” said the taller one. “Thought you’d never get here. We’ll have that silver now, jester.”

Finn jumped down. So did Meb, with relief. She’d got used to the smell, just not the idea. Finn reached up and tossed a bundle from the seat to her “Off you go to the sea, Scrap. Get yourself washed off. You stink.”

It was true that lofting the buckets, she’d had the worse job. And even seawater looked good after that. She was still scared of it, but . . . ankle deep should be safe enough. And it let her change in a little privacy. So she ran over the low dune and onto the beach. Finn seemed on friendly enough terms with the men.

She pulled the smock off and washed, rubbing her hands and forearms with the coarse sand, keeping a weather eye out for Finn, or anyone else. She had her new breeches and tunic-top on, and was sitting pulling the boots on before he finally appeared.

Unselfconsciously, he stripped off, washed, dressed. Meb tried as best as she could not to stare. Or blush. Or behave as a boy would not. But he didn’t seem too observant, to her relief. They took the stained and mucky smocks back to the night-soil men, busy emptying the cart, seemingly oblivious to the smell.

Soon they were making their way cross country, away from Tarport. Finn led them to a rutted lane, overhung with hedgerows. He seemed very wary. “When I tell you to get into the bushes, do it.”

“Why?”

“Because Zuamar plainly hasn’t heard about his tax hall. Someone will take word to his eyrie, eventually, little as they may want to. And he’s a bit sharper than those dozy guards.”

Sure enough, a little later Finn said “Bushes” sharply, and even though she was busy obeying, he hoicked her sideways into the hedge. She hadn’t even been aware that there was a gap there, but there was enough space for them to hide. The autumn sunlight was cut by a sudden shadow. Meb was deathly afraid. Wished herself invisible. The shadow passed along with the ponderous wings of the great dragon.

“He’s going to be really mad, soon,” said Finn. “How do you feel about running, Scrap? Every bit of distance counts, and there is running water just up the hill.”

Meb hoped it was clean water. She could use a drink and, indeed, some breakfast. She had a feeling that it might be a while before she ate, though.

***

Fionn had worried that she might just have given them away with the power of those magics of hers. It was plain that the child had no idea just what she was doing, let alone what surges of power she was putting out. Although it had undoubtedly been with her since birth, in humans this sort of thing usually began to flower at puberty. She would probably go on developing for several more years. Her little village had no idea how lucky it had been. And how lucky it had been not to be destroyed. That ‘not here’ of hers that she’d pulled down on them must have looked like someone had cut a hole in the fabric of reality. He’d been hard-pressed to weave an illusion above it, and afraid that Zuamar would notice the working. Some Dragons were more sensitive than others at range. All of them were aware of it from close at hand.

Zuamar would be getting a reek of it in his big nostrils now, thought Fionn sniggering. And they’d cast a powerful illusion over themselves in leaving the town. More than a few would remember the nightsoil men. But they’d remember them as nightsoil men. Too obvious to suspect. And while those big nostrils of Zuamar would be smelling for human and dragon magic, the smell of shit would help to hide it.

Fionn could have left the town as he’d come. But there was this human-girl-child. He wondered just where she’d come from. She was human, all right . . . but the dragons of Tasmarin had hunted down far smaller traces of magic than that. Magic ability was heritable, and he’d thought that there wasn’t much left in the gene-pool. Perhaps she was a throwback . . . but she felt as if she came from elsewhere. Whatever she was, he would have to train her somehow, or she’d create enough trouble to enmesh even him.

Anyway, she was almost falling over from exhaustion. Panting like an angry centaur. They’d have to take shelter where she could believe was safe, soon. Otherwise powers of water, earth and sky alone knew what she would do next. Well, he’d avoided the dvergar for some years, after last time. They’d probably got over it by now.

***

Meb was gasping for breath, and her feet seemed to have lost touch with her eyes. They kept tripping over things that she knew she’d seen. And the gleeman just seemed tireless in his long easy strides. Maybe she’d just fall over. Lord Zuamar could catch her.

Then she felt, or rather heard the dragon’s roar of rage. At least . . . she must have heard it. They were nearly a league from Tarport, she was sure. But it seemed to echo in her skull. She swayed, and her tired feet managed to trip her, and send her sprawling and slithering on hands and knees into the stream. The gleeman hauled her upright by the scruff of her tunic. “He’s loud and he’s angry,” he said, grinning. “Come on. Pull your boots off, and walk in the water. Couple of hundred yards more. Can you do it?”

“Ye . . . es,” she panted. Really what she wanted to do was to lie down and then drink. Her spit was dry and sticky and clung to her lips. She was sweating like it was the midsummer ship-haul for careening — yet her feet were in agony. The stream-water was numbingly cold. “I . . . icy.”

“It comes down off the mountains,” said Finn, pointing. She could just see the distant tops of the purple-blue mountains of the interior. It was a place of fear and strangeness to the fishermen, a mysterious place where the alvar had their palaces and, somewhere on the highest peaks, Lord Zuamar had his eyrie.

Somehow she kept walking through the pebbly shallows after Fionn. A fish darted from her feet, and she nearly fell over. They came to a series of small waterfalls. Finn did not let her touch the dry rocks on either side but made her scramble up through the slippery splash. And then they came to a long narrow pool between huge boulders — boulders the size of two houses each. A far larger waterfall poured splashily into the far side, maybe thirty yards away, but the ripples from it were lost in the mirror smoothness of the water. The pool fell away from the clear yellow and brown pebbled shallows into the blue-grey depths. Her heart fell. It looked deep, and she already knew that it would be bitterly cold. She was relieved when he held his hand up for her to stop. He whistled.

She hadn’t seen it until it moved. The furry head dropped under water with a plop and a set of rings on the still water. A dark shape swirled away.

“Otr,” said the Jester.

“Otter?” She’d heard of those, and had seen sea-otters.

“No. Otr. He’s a tricky one. One of the oldest. He’ll have gone to talk with the rest.”

Meb looked back toward the town they’d left that morning. Finn caught the glance.

“Zuamar’s rising. You feel it, do you, Scrap?”

She did. She could feel the rage. And she wanted to run and hide. He put a steadying hand on her shoulder. “You are safest in the water. Anyway, with luck we’ll have a hiding place.”

***

Fionn knew that he was taking a chance. He’d stretched their traveling as much as he could . . . and she’d showed that the working did not affect her. He’d seen her response to Zuamar’s fountain of rage. She’d clutched her ears. Fionn knew that it wasn’t actual sound that she was aware of. The principle of reciprocity applied well with magical forces. If you could feel the other, the other could probably feel you. The water would help. Water force would dissipate her sendings, scatter them down the stream. But it was time to call a favor due. The dvergar owed him. Of course no one liked being reminded of that.

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