As I walked down the track, my shadow began to lengthen in front of me. I surmised that I was heading east, and that the sun was lowering behind me. I had earned a merit badge in orienteering before my Boy Scout troop was disbanded for rotten behavior. I thought nostalgically about some of the good ol’ Boy Scout campouts: my first cigarette, my first beer and my first hit of marijuana came on one or another Boy Scout camp out. My road to ruin was paved with merit badges and granny knots.
The road I was on now started to flatten out, and the trees receded to either side. Up ahead, I could see the intersection where the road I was on intersected with the river road. Flashes of water were visible amongst the trees. A horseman rode up the road, heading north. I ran for the tree line, but by the time I got there, the horseman had passed. Nothing weird about this one – no armor, no insignia, and the horse had the standard number of legs. I squatted in the brush for a while, but no other traffic came by, so I got back to walking.
I realized that I couldn’t just keep hiding every time someone came near. I was going to have to interact with someone if I wanted to figure out basic food and shelter. If push came to shove, I could probably camp out under the stars – it seemed mild enough. Food was another story – I couldn’t subsist for long on berries and leaves. My woodcraft was pretty rusty, and I didn’t want to get sick or die from eating the wrong thing.
Besides, I didn’t know if I could even communicate with the locals; for all I knew, they could speak Serbo-Croation, or maybe a bushmen of the Kalahari language that had all sorts of clicks and pops. Well, I’d find out soon enough, I supposed.
Ahead at the crossroads, a group of four men came up the river road, again heading north. I didn’t hide, but I sort of scooched over to the side of the track and walked slowly with my head down.
They were dressed in the same fashion I was: buckskin breeches, lumpy cloth boots and plain shirts. One of the men had a long cloth coat and a conical straw hat. The men didn’t notice me, but they stopped briefly and regarded something on the other side of the road that I couldn’t see. The man with the hat shook his head, then all four of them trudged out of sight.
As I drew closer to the crossroads, I could see what the men were looking at: a small mud-walled hut with a thatched roof, with a small enclosed pasture beside it. The thatch in the corner of the roof was black and smoldering, and part of the wood fence surrounding the pasture had been knocked down. The breaks in the wood looked fresh.
As a drew nearer, I could see an eye peeking out from between the slats of a crooked shutter. I took a step towards it. “Hey, are you okay?” I asked.
“Go away!” said a quavering voice from within. “Fuck off!”
So much for the language barrier.
It didn’t look the roof was going to burst into flame, so I turned and walked away from the house. Once I was clear of the smoldering house and its unfriendly inhabitants, I crossed the road and went down to the river’s edge, where there was a still pool with a shallow bank. I went down and leaned over the pool, regarding my reflection.
This is how Narcissus got in trouble, I thought. Well, fuck it – Narcissus wasn’t dealing with the same circumstances that I was. The face that gazed back at me was perfectly recognizable – good ol’ Scott Gray, aged approximately 25. Same red hair, not yet receding. Same hated freckles, with no wrinkles jumbling them up. Same blue eyes, but with healthy-looking whites that hadn’t looked that clear since, well, junior high school.
With a spring in my step, I cut back to the road through a small copse of trees. Once again, I had the feeling of being followed. Off to my right, a branch snapped. It sounded close.
“Who’s there?” I asked, unable to hide a tremor in my voice. “Show yourself, dammit!”
Nothing but bird and bug sounds. I peered into the brush, but it looked way too dense for a person to go through there. It was probably just some woodland critter. I had given myself a case of the jibblies.
“All right,” I said more to myself than anyone else, and pushed back onto the road. I looked to the south and could see another group of people walking my way, so I turned and headed north too. That was where the town was – or where I hoped it was – and it seemed to be a popular destination. I walked onward, trying to look inconspicuous. I guess I must have succeeded, because five minutes later, another horseman rode by without even sparing me a glance. I guess I was blending in.
There was more traffic on the road now: groups of people on foot, horsemen in ones and twos, and one large wooded cart, being pulled by a pair of tired-looking horses. The cart contained a large family and a mound of turnips.
My unease at being a stranger in a strange land was still there, but nobody seemed to care. None of the people on the road seemed to be talking to each other – everyone pretty much kept to themselves. This was fine with me, although I’d been hoping to hear some conversation just to get a better idea of how people spoke.
There were now small farmsteads appearing on the side of the road, mostly thatched cottages and small wooden barns with tilled fields, growing mostly corn. The further north I went the more closely-spaced the farms were. Ahead, I could clearly see a tall wooden steeple rising above the woods and farmland.
There was a bend in the road, and suddenly, I was at the edge of town, a huddled collection of thatched-roof cottages, interspersed with sturdier wood houses. Two blocks later, I was in the town square. The square stretched between the large wooden church (which bore the steeple I’d seen), and a sizable stone building that looked like the town hall. The square was lined with wooden houses and small wood-framed shops packed closely together.
People milled around the square, talking in small groups. There was an unhappy undercurrent to the mood. At the front of the town hall, the large wagon that I’d seen earlier was parked. The six-legged beast that had been pulling it was nowhere in sight. The armored knight was also absent, but his men stood in a row at the base of the steps leading to the town hall. They stood with hands on the hilts of the swords hanging from their belts. The crowd stood well back from them, giving them mistrustful looks.
I jumped as the bell in the church tolled. It had a heavy, leaden sound, as if it was made of iron – CLUNG! The crowd turned towards the church, and a tall, thin man in a gray robe stepped from the front door. He looked to be in his early 60s, with a fringe of gray hair on the top of his head that matched the gray fringe beard surrounding his chin. The crowd muttered, and I heard the phrase “Primate Piotr” repeated.
The crowd parted, and Primate Piotr made his way across the square to the town hall. The men-at-arms parted to let him pass, and as he mounted the steps the doors of the town hall opened, and a middle-aged man in a red coat emerged, followed by a young woman in a very white gown. The woman was gorgeous with thick brown hair that matched that of the man in the robe. She also shared his blue eyes. Their eyes were very large and very expressive. The man’s eyes expressed anger and sadness; hers conveyed confusion and fear. They stood at the head of the stairs. The door behind them opened again, and a number of men in red robes – minor functionaries of some sort – arrayed themselves behind the man and woman. Everyone’s attention turned to the enormous wagon – all of the people on the stairs and the entire crowd in the square turned to stare at the colossal conveyance.
For about five minutes, nothing happened.
Then, the back door of the wagon opened, and from there descended a very tall man. Looking around the crowd in the square, I could see that I was nearly a head taller than almost everyone else in the crowd, but this guy towered over me. He was Wilt Chamberlain tall. He was dressed in loose-fitting gray trousers and a matching smock. His face, despite its relative altitude, was utterly ordinary: standard-honkey skin tone, meh nose, and dishwater blond hair cut short and parted to the side. He looked like the World’s Tallest Accountant.
The WTA reached back into the wagon and helped down the knight I’d seen earlier. At least he was wearing the same type of armor, but was bareheaded, revealing a long shock of dark hair with heavy goatee and eyebrows to match. His eyes were so dark as to appear black, and flashed wickedly in the early-afternoon sun. The WTA bowed to him and the knight nodded briskly, then led the WTA up the steps.
The young lady shrank back visibly as the pair mounted the stairs. Her father – for that was surely want the older man was – reached out and gave her upper arm a squeeze. She nodded briefly, then straightened up and stepped forward.
The mood in the square was distinctly tense. It charged the air like electricity. A sub-audible grumbling, resentful and unhappy, permeated the square.
At the top of the steps, the WTA pulled a scroll from his smock and handed it to Primate Piotr. The Primate unrolled it, then spent a long time reading it. After several minutes, the tall man stepped up to Primate Piotr and leaned over him. Piotr nodded curtly and waved the WTA away, then stepped forward and held up his hands. The crowd went silent, but the sense of tension ratcheted even higher.
Primate Piotr looked at the scroll again, then rolled it up. “Hear ye, by proclamation of Duke Noe of Kernia, bondsman and agent of our great King Farnis XI, long may he reign.”
“Long may he reign,” mumbled the crowd.
Piotr cleared his throat, and said, “I publish the banns of marriage between Duke Alfred Noe, lord of Kernia and of Whipgate, and Lady Gieselle Harmon of Whipgate. This is the first time of asking. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other you are to declare it.”
Primate Piotr looked out across the crowd. Some muted mutters, but otherwise no response. Duke Noe looked like a cat that had finally gotten a long-sought-after canary. The World’s Tallest Accountant kept an utterly blank expression on his face.
Primate Piotr continued, “This is the second time of asking. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other you are to declare it.”
More muttering from the crowd. Lady Gieselle and her father maintained glassy-eyes expressions of stoicism, their gaze directed above the heads of the crowd.
Once more, Piotr intoned, “This is the final time of asking. If any of you know any reason in law why they may not marry each other you are to declare it.”
The mood in the crowd grew more tense, but not a word was said. Primate Piotr nodded, then took a step back and hung his head.
Duke Noe took Lady Gieselle by the arm and led her quickly down the stairs, followed closely by the WTA. Gieselle kept her chin up and her eyes clear. She turned and looked directly at me. Easy enough, since I was one of the tallest people in the square. Out eyes locked for a second that seemed like a year. I felt love, lust, pity, anger, indignation and an overwhelming desire to do something, all in the space of half a second. Then she was gone.
Duke Noe and the WTA bundled Gieselle into the back of the wagon. The grumbling in the crowd increased and became more threatening. The crowd pressed towards the wagon. The WTA turned to face the crowd. He swept his mild gaze across them. To me, he looked like a businessman browsing the sock display at Target, but the crowd found it fearsome and shrank back.
A weird animal bray came from behind the town hall, and the crowd began moving quickly away from it, back towards the church. I had no choice but to go along with the crowd; I was caught in a wave. There was another load bray, and I looked over my shoulder to see what was causing the ruckus.
It was the freaky six-legged camel-beast that had pulled the cart. It had a black bag over its head, and the wagon driver was leading it to the front of the wagon to harness it. A sense of crowd-borne panic flashed through me, and I picked up my pace to a near-sprint. On the other side of the church, people disappeared into the maze of small houses. I kept going until I got to the edge of town – only a two block trip – and looked for a place to rest. There was a nice grove of trees about fifty yards away. I walked into it until I was sure I was well-concealed, then sat down with my back to the trunk of a tree and pondered. Clearly, there was a forced marriage taking place between the daughter of the local panjandrum, and a higher muckety-muck who lived off to the west somewhere. Said muckety-muck coming off creepy as hell, and with an equally creepy retinue. Clearly the locals of – what was it, Whipgate? – were not happy with the situation. Given the ugly mood, it didn’t seem to be a good idea to be a stranger in town right now. I’d just lay low for awhile and come back when sentiments weren’t so volatile.