“You’ve been gone, what, almost a month maybe?” Adahy asked Dyani.
“Like that,” she said. “I had a lot of woods trails and old roads to scout. Got mostly done and was heading west home before…before I got sidetracked.”
“Sidetracked? You?” Adahy looked surprised. “Can’t think of what’d draw you off the path…unless you got wind of something real interesting.”
Dyani took a few seconds to consider her response. “Not exactly. More like I got yanked off, but that doesn’t matter any. I’m here for maybe a coupla days and then off again.”
“Us too,” Dunc chimed in. “We’re all footin’ it together until–”
“–until we aren’t.” Dyani spoke over him and gave him an angry glare.
I stepped in to smooth things out. “So, Adahy, where can we get some grub, and what’s it take to get a hot bath?”
“You all do look like you could stand some eats and a wash, and from where I’m standin’, I’d recommend a good scrub first.” He paused, considered, and grinned. “Aw, hell. Never mind that. I s’pose if you don’t sit too close to anyone at a food stall, eats first’ll do. C’mon ‘n’ I’ll stand all ya to a decent meal. Bath’s on you though.”
“How ‘bout you go set something up for us and we’ll be along,” Dyani said. She raised an eyebrow at Adahy who nodded back and set off down the main avenue of the marketplace.
Dyani beckoned Dunc and me in close and spit out, “Both ya keep your mouths shut about everything we’re up to. No mention of Bors, gettin’ spiked, the power station, the Meeks–nothing! Nothing! Got that?”
I was glad that Dunc had the good sense to keep his mouth shut and not provoke Dyani with some question. “Yeah, got it,” I said. “Let’s all cool off here and go get something to eat.”
Dyani turned and strode off after Adahy with Stashi on her heels. Dunc started a question. “But what’s the big secret? We’re–”
I cut him off. “Here’s the deal, Dunc. Anyone gets wind that we’re after something big that a cobot wants, well, then we’ve got a race on for sure, don’t we. It’s bad enough the situation we’re in without having someone else beat us to whatever the hell big prize we’re looking for. D’ya get the picture?”
“Guess I do,” he said. His mouth turned down and he looked the picture of gloom. “We’d better catch up with Dyani before she thinks she has to come lookin’ for us. Or sends Adahy to fetch us.”
I gave his shoulder a pally squeeze and joked, “Hey, now that there’s one sensible thing you’ve said today.” I added more seriously: “Ya know, Dunc, I’ve prob’ly got as much to learn out here as you do. Difference between us mostly is that I know how to keep quiet when it’s smart to. Main thing now that we’re yoked together, we’ve gotta pull together in the same direction.” I paused dramatically, drew myself up, and delivered my final remark like one of those traveling play actors do. “Or we are ta-ruuuuly sca-rewed!”
That got a laugh out of Dunc, and, spirits lightened for the moment, we went to find Dyani and Adahy. I’d been in a market town before up near the farm, but it’d been smaller and way less rowdy than this one. All the neighbor farms set up stalls to trade off or sell surplus, and it was all familiar and friendly. Everyone knew everyone else from the nearby farms and hamlets, and everyone played by the rules: no drinking hard stuff or smoking weed on the grounds and no fighting unless you wanted to get banned. Non-locals were welcome, but if they leaned the least bit toward troublemaking, well, the market heavies and their dogs were big, tough, and exempt from rule number two. That market was small beer compared to this one, though, which was not just stalls and peaceful behavior.
Like in our little market, there were stalls selling eggs, chickens, honeycomb, tobacco, goat cheese, spirits, salted meat, fruit and nuts–that kind of local farmer stuff. But in the Mount Forest market you could find fruit and meat pies, nails, old glass bottles, matches,needles and thread, scratch pens and paper and ink, sacks of wool, bread, leather goods like belts and wristguards and sandals and boots, guns, knives, rolls of cloth, and “fresh” butchered meat–a lot of which looked near putrid to me but appetizing enough to the flies crawling on it–and so on. I’d never seen such a large variety of goods in one place before or such a wide variety of people and their commotion. I had to pry Dunc away from a stall full of useless trinkets that resurrectionists had dug out of old cemeteries and landfills. Eyes peeled for Dyani and Adahy, we picked our way through the traffic of carts and milling people and passed through a right din of dickering, shouts, laughter, and the occasional stream of cusswords. As we walked by a tavern in the center of the market, we heard a series of thuds and grunts as someone was clearly getting the shit knocked out of him. Not our business, so we moved along trying to look like none of this was new to us until I spotted Dyani sitting on a bench outside an eats shop and waving us over.
Adahy emerged from the shop, two mugs in each fist, and handed them around as we hauled up and plunked ourselves down. I put my nose to the rim and took a deep whiff. Just water, I guessed, with a hint of–well, it was hard to say what. At least it wasn’t brown and full of floaters. I gave Adahy a thumbs-up-and-thanks sign and took a sip to see if it tasted okay. It was warm and flat, but it didn’t make me gag, I’d panted away all day like a brown dog in August, so I tossed all the rest down and smacked my lips.
“Food’ll be right out,” Adahy said. “More water? It’s pretty clean. They boil it here.”
Dyani, Dunc, and I all shook our heads. A minute more hadn’t passed when a stout older wearing a grimy leather apron handed each of us a spoon and an empty bowl and disappeared back into the shop. I was about to wisecrack about how I hoped Adahy hadn’t spent too much on a bowl of air when she reappeared with a fire-blackened stewpot in one hand and a fat loaf of dark bread under an arm.
Adahy introduced us. “This here’s Gwennie. She owns the place, and you’re not gonna get better eats in Mount Forest or anywhere else.”
Gwennie leaned over and planted a kiss on top of Adahy’s head. “You’re a good boy, aren’t ya,” she said. She handed the bread to Adahy, poked around the kettle with a serving spoon, and plopped a soggy mass of shredded meat and veg into each of our bowls. “Enjoy,” she said.
“That an order?” Dyani joked.
Gwennie laughed. “Nah, just sayin’ a friendly ‘bone appa tee’ like my many-greats woulda. You know the words?”
“Can’t say’s I do,” Dyani replied. “But thanks.”
I wasn’t too sure about being thankful yet myself. Dunc’s face was screwed up in perplexity, and it was clear that he was wondering what kind of meat we’d been served, too.
“Dig in, boys,” Adahy said. “It ain’t gonna jump up ‘n’ kill ya.”
“What ‘xactly is it?” Dunc asked.
“Don’t know for sure, but judging from the smell, I’d say kidneys, bone marrow…and maybe some brains ‘n’ liver.”
“Doesn’t matter from what as long as it ain’t from who, right?”
“Just tell me it’s not long pig,” I said. I’d heard stories of people eating people now and then in the wilder reaches of the Big Woods–mostly out of necessity, but not always. They could have just been stories, but I never heard anyone entirely discount them.
“It isn’t,” Dyani said. “Stop messing with the boys, Adahy. Look, it’s just venison and, like Adahy said, as good as you’re gonna get anywhere.” She stirred her bowl, scooped up a chunk of meat, and chewed it with relish. “Not too bad at all,” she declared as she spat out a piece of gristle between her feet where Stashi snapped it up.
Suddenly I realized that I was starved. I’d been living on provisions I’d brought along from the farm and wild eatables–pretty meager stuff. I murdered the contents of my bowl, mopped it clean with a hunk of bread, and wondered aloud if a second helping might be had. Adahy said, “Sure, long’s you’re not fussy anymore. Ya sure the grub’s okey-doke now?”
“It’s damn good,” Dunc chimed in. “I’ll have another bowl too–if you’re still buying.”
A broad grin spread across Adahy’s face, and he whistled to get Gwennie’s attention. A few moments later she was back filling our bowls again from the pot. I can’t think of any dish back on the farm or any grub I’ve had since that tasted much better than that stew. Could’ve been because I was so hungry. Could’ve been because it was delicious in its own right. Or both. Doesn’t matter. Even the scraps Gwennie threw on the ground for Stashi looked pretty good to me. I’ll tell you that if you’re ever passing through Mount Forest yourself, make a beeline for the Mare’s Arse grubhouse. Gwennie’ll set you a fine plate.