The herdsman turned to meet the threatening gaze. “I do not want any trouble.”
“Then don’t go looking for it.” With his other hand the officer extended an open palm. Nearby, his men tensed.
“I am a simple herdsman. I have mostly cattle and some sheep, but no coin. My village is a poor one.”
The officer shrugged. “Not a problem. Turn around and go back to it.”
Ehomba eyed the other side of the gate longingly. He could hear the sounds of a bustling bazaar, smell meat and vegetables being cooked in oil with exotic spices, understand many of the come-ons of unseen hawkers and barkers. “I have come a long way and am very tired. I need food and rest.”
“Go ask your friends the monkeys to feed you!” suggested one of the sentries. His companions chuckled, but did not let down their guard.
“Maybe you have something you can trade.” Not wishing to appear entirely unreasonable, the officer eyed the pack on the traveler’s back. Even unprepossessing southerners, it was said, sometimes carried interesting goods and artifacts with them.
“I am traveling light as it is. I need everything I have,” the herdsman protested softly.
“That spear, for instance.” The officer gestured at the slender weapon in question. “Barbaric design and decoration, pretty useless in a fight, but perhaps worth something in the marketplace as a curio.”
“As I said, I need everything I have.”
“Oh, surely not everything.” The officer winked at his men a second time, then took a step forward. His mouth twisted. “That point, for instance. What kind of stone is that?”
“It is not a stone.” Lowering the spear, Ehomba indicated the dark brown, serrated seven-inch-long spearpoint. “It is a tooth that has been turned to stone. It comes from a creature that no longer walks the Earth. The wise people of my tribe believe that the spirit of its owner still inhabits the stone.”
“Ah, good! A fine story to go with the weapon. Together they ought to be worth almost a gold piece.” Extending a hand, he held tight to the haft of his sword with the other. “Give it to me.” Immediately, his men spread out to prevent the reluctant traveler from fleeing.
Ehomba studied the circle of armed men. “Very well,” he replied at last. “Here.” Lowering the spear, he gave it a short thrust in the officer’s direction.
Instantly, swords were drawn and the guard stepped back. What happened next was a matter of some debate among those farmers and traders who were lined up waiting to enter the inner city. Most saw nothing, whereas those in front insisted that, for the briefest of instants, something monstrous had appeared before the town gate. Something like a dragon, only much bigger, with a head the size of a bullock cart, eyes like Death itself, and enormous teeth curved like scimitars. It had startlingly tiny arms, a long, stiff tail, and, unlike any common dragon, it walked on two feet like a man.
It bent low over the aghast guards and growled, the sound coming from deep in its belly. At this the men flung their weapons aside and fled, all save one, who fainted on the spot. Eyeing the prone individual, the beast bent low and nudged it with gaping jaws. But before it could snap the man up and devour him in a single bite, Ehomba drew back his spear. There was a rushing noise, as of air escaping into a vacuum, and the monster seemed (so insisted a dealer in herbs near the front of the line who claimed to have witnessed the whole business) to vanish, sucked back into the point of a spear wielded by a tall southerner standing beneath the gate.
Back in the line, rearing horses and panicked pigs fully occupied the attention of their owners, so that not all eyes were fixed on the drama by the entrance to the city. Without saying a word, the traveler entered, striding purposefully off in the direction of the bazaar. In the sudden absence of guards there was a rush to follow, as people and goods scrambled to take advantage of the opportunity to avoid the irritating inspection that usually befell all those attempting to enter from outside. As for the story, it swiftly lost currency as a topic of conversation as people immersed themselves in the necessary business of the day.
* * * *
Ehomba located a plain but clean inn whose owner, in light of the fact that business had been slow lately, reluctantly agreed to accept some of the colorful Naumkib trade beads the tall stranger carried with him in lieu of coin. Settling himself on a real bed for the first time since he had left home, Ehomba unpacked and spread his belongings out on the floor to air. The fist-sized cotton bag of glassy gravel from the beach north of the village he placed beneath the pillow, both to remind him of home and because the pillow was too smooth and soft to sleep on. Rolling over, he could smell the sea stench that still adhered to the sack of pebbles.
In this manner he fell into a soundless sleep, awakening with the sunrise as was his habit. After washing up and repacking his gear, he retired to the dining room. It provided breakfast in the form of sausages, toasted breads enhanced by an interesting variety of seeds and chopped nuts, butter, jams, eggs of varying size and color, and meats both cooked and cold. It was an impressive and necessary repast, and when the herdsman departed it was with the satisfaction of having received fair value for goods given.
Already the bazaar was teeming with traders and farmers and craftsfolk hawking their produce. Colorful canopies of woven fabric shaded the stalls and benches while signs in several scripts beckoned buyers from above dark doorways. Wealthier shopkeepers sold everything from rugs to rambutan, silver to snake oil, fish to fine filigree work. Pancake makers hovered over hissing grills, competing in batter and patter. A heavyset woman clad in a silken blouse and denim trousers tried to sell him long pants to replace his woolen kilt, while from a narrow doorway a scrawny young mongoose of a youth attempted to inveigle the tall herdsman into purchasing (or at least renting) one of several lithesome young ladies packed into the shadows behind him.
All around Ehomba there was sound and discussion, with only a minimal amount of fury. Another time, he would have lingered in fascination. But he was in a hurry, to fulfill his obligation and to return home. Having eaten, he was able to ignore the frenetic blandishments of the food vendors. What he did need was information on boats or, failing that, on the best route north.
Several queries led him to a multistory mud-brick building, where a dark dwarf at the entrance directed him up a tiled stairway to the third floor. Reaching the top, he turned down an open hallway. One side was exposed to the city and to the light, in contrast to the dark stairwell he had ascended.
At the end of the porch-hallway he found a portal barred only by a curtain of dangling beads. In response to his query, a voice from within bade him enter.
He found himself in a spacious room filled with shelves and dominated by a tinkling fountain of black and gray stone set near a far window. The stone was full of ancient animals that had been petrified, not unlike the tip of his spear. Moving close, he found he could sense their spirits, though they were not nearly as strong as the one that inhabited his weapon. Mostly they were of modest creatures that crawled and fluttered along the ocean floor.
The shelves and bookcases were filled to overflowing with specimens taken from the natural world, and with well-rubbed ancient books and scrolls. The room was very much the habitat of a scholar, well read and with extensive knowledge of the world beyond the town. He felt he had come to the right place.
“Be with you in a moment!” The voice came from a door set in the far wall. Finding an empty seat, Ehomba settled himself into it as best he could, taking care that the two swords slung against his back did not bump up against the embossed leather of the expensive chair.
A figure emerged from the unseen room beyond the doorway. It was not at all what Ehomba had expected. Extending a hand and favoring him with a cheerful smile, the young woman made motions for him to retain his seat.
“Good morning! I am Rael, of the school of Cephim. How may I help you?”
“I—please excuse my poor country manners. I was expecting …”
“Someone older?” Her eyes twinkled. “A superannuated, parchment-skinned man with a long white beard, perhaps? Or a lumbering fat woman with a crystal ball?” She laughed, and her laughter was the sound of summer waves lapping at a white sand beach. “I get that all the time. I’m sorry to disappoint you.”