Eventually we stopped bolting the stew and slowed down enough to have a talk. Dyani asked Adahy if he’d caught wind of somebody calling himself Marek thereabouts. Adahy shook his head. “Don’t remember anybody by that name. If he was here, he musta been on the quiet side.”
“How ‘bout Meeks? Any activity around here?” I asked.
Adahy made a face. “There’s summa them fucks around. They’ve been moving in all directions along the trails in twos and threes for some time now lookin’ for something or other. I’m not ‘xactly privy to their plans so I don’t know what. Course they won’t be showing their grimy faces here where they’re not wanted and real likely to get…mmm, let’s say banged up .”
Dyani asked, “D’ya know if they’ve been taking a lot of converts?”
“Only anyone green ‘n’ stupid enough to be hiking it alone through an area they’re busy in.”
Dyani said, “Like these two farmers started out, you mean?”
She hadn’t needed to do that–make us look like a couple of idiots in front of Adahy–but Adahy just laughed good-naturedly. “Good luck that they ran into you, then, innit?”
If he knew just how and why we’d come to be running together, he wouldn’t have called it good luck, I thought, but I didn’t say anything.
“Which way you headed next?” he asked.
“We’re gonna poke around down south before I start back for home,” Dyani said. “There anybody or anything we should watch out for down there?”
Adahy combed his fingers through his thick hair while he thought. “Course there’s always bad guys running the trails, but there’s been talk of a warbot o’ some kind roaming ‘round down near the power station. If you’re going that far down, you’ll need to watch out for it. Thing is, nobody’s actually seen it, least as far as I know. But if it’s still doing what it’s good at doing, well….”
He didn’t finish, but it wasn’t hard to finish his thought, and I didn’t like the sound of it. Warbots had only one purpose–hunting and killing humans and other bots, and if they were in good working order, they did it well. Adahy could have been talking about a sniper type that took out prey one at a time or one that lay down death in bunches. Either way, I hoped we wouldn’t need to get anywhere near one.
“That’s about it. By the way,” Adahy said, “there was a fella here that got away from the Meeks. Still might be in the campground over the other side of the market. Maybe you should talk with him before you head out.”
Dyani said, “Do you know who he is? Can you take us to him?”
Adahy laughed. “I just heard of him, never met him. But you won’t have any trouble finding him yourself if he’s still around. He’s got the wounds. Ask ’round when you get to the campground, but I’m pretty sure he’s high-tailed it outta here already.”
Dunc shook his head. “Wounds? What kinda wounds?”
“The escapee who stopped at White Cedars had ’em too,” I said. “He told us that after Meeks soften up a convert, they have a ceremony. The poor sod has his wrists lashed together and they push a skinny red hot skewer all the way through both hands so as to make a scar but still leave the hands useful.” I guess we’d missed seeing those marks on the Meeks we’d beaten down. In all the excitement, I mean.
“Why the hell they do that?” Dunc asked.
“There’s three reasons,” said Adahy. “One, the scars signify something like Dyani’s clan marks–you know, to mark him or her as a member of their gathering. Two, if someone gets away from the Meeks, wounds like that on the hands make it easy for Meeks to spot ’em and drag ’em back if they can. Three, it makes anyone think twice about helping a runaway and getting on the Meeks’ bad side.”
“Didn’t know they had a good side. Anyway, you let a dodger stay here? Wouldn’t they try t’come in and take him back?” Dunc asked.
Adahy gave a snort and spat on the ground. “We’re not afraid of them nutters here, and they know better’n mixing it up with us. They tried it just the once. Fast learners. Never tried it again.”
Dyani wiped her mouth with her forearm and gave a satisfied burp. She thanked Adahy for standing us to a meal and we chimed in with our thanks. “We’re gonna pick up some provisions before heading to the campground,” she told Adahy. “A soak’d be good first though. Bathhouse open?”
Adahy made a joke of sniffing the air. “Real good idea, that. Yeah, it should be open for a while yet. C’mon an’ I’ll walk you over and pick you up after you’ve shed summa that dirt. Take you to the campground then.”
We said our bye-byes and thanks to Gwennie and ambled down the marketplace’s main lane again. We were lucky not to find a line when we got to the bathhouse. We paid up and were led right away to three large wooden tubs out back of the big wood-fired boiler. Dunc took one look at the arrangements and blurted out, “Hey! Everybody can see.”
Adahy bellowed a great laugh. “And that’s a problem because…?”
Dunc began, “It’s right out in the open and–”
“C’mon, Dunc,” Dyani said, rolling her eyes. “No one’s gonna give you a second look unless what you’ve got’s really big or really small. So which way’s it go with you?”
Dunc blushed deeply and said, “Neither way far’s I know.”
Adahy said, “Well, myself, I’m not real interested in finding out, so I’ll leave you to it. I’ll be back, so wait for me if you finish up first.”
As Adahy lumbered away, I stripped off and Dunc followed suit, hoping, I suppose, to spare himself more of Dyani’s joking. Dyani stood there, amusement playing in her eyes as we dropped our clothes on the ground. “Not bad, boys,” she said as we grabbed our soap chunks and climbed into our tubs. “Nothing outstanding–but not bad.”
The bathhouse boy hurried over to the boiler, opened up the spigot, and began to fill buckets. He fit a yoke on his shoulders, stooped to hook a bucket on either end, and waddled over under the weight to our tubs. I gasped as he dumped the steaming water over my head, but soon got used to it and started lathering up. While Dunc and I started to clean the grunge and stink off ourselves, Dyani undressed and lowered herself into the last tub, not two meters from ours. I allowed myself a goodly eyeful. She was no less cruddy than we were, but she did have a nicely rounded body under all the grime. I was wondering what she’d look like after a good soak when she glanced over and caught my roaming eye. She laughed. “Not too bad, either, huh?” I looked over at Dunc who’d evidently been peeking too and was now making it his sole business to concentrate on scrubbing his feet. “No, not too,” I said, turning back to Dyani. “Nothing outstanding, but….” I let the thought hang and was glad to see that it got a grin out of her.
The boy continued to tote hot water over to us until we sat waist deep in the tubs. We scoured ourselves until the water started to cool off and then called for towels.
“You want hot or cold for rinse?” mumbled the boy who’d been keeping a sharp eye on us to make sure we wouldn’t make a trip to the boiler to sneak more hot water. “Hot’s extra, y’know.”
“Cold’ll do,” said Dyani. “Especially for those two.” Very funny, I thought, but true.
We climbed out not exactly spotless, but definitely more pinkish than gray. While we waited for the boy to bring our rinse water and towels I took the opportunity to cast another sidelong glance at Dyani, and I’ll have to say that she cleaned up good. I had to give myself a shake, though, to get back to the real world. The three of us didn’t need any complications of that sort to interfere with our trek. But, I’ll admit that it took me no little time to get the picture of a sleek and supple Dyani out of my mind.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’d never seen a girl before. On the farm it’s not at all uncommon to catch an eyeful now and then. And it’s not as though I hadn’t done my share of snogging either. Again, not uncommon on the farm after you reached a certain age. But none of my partners had been near as attractive as Dyani was right then. However, I had no illusions in that regard. Nothing was going to happen between us under the circumstances. At least that’s what flashed through my mind while I was gaping at her like some dumb mooncalf. Dunc must’ve read my mind. He gave me a little shove just before the boy began pouring cold water over us which did help cool me off before my imagination embarrassed me. We dried off with the rough towels the attendant handed us, and rather than put our dirty clothes back on, we each pulled a change of clothes from our packs and threw our filthy duds into the bath tubs and cleaned them the best we could. We’d lay them out to dry at the campsite later on.
We had to wait just a few minutes for Adahy to come by. We then made our way along the line of stalls and little stores, picking up this and that. Most of the stalls looked as though they’d been thrown together. Not one looked much more sturdy than a chicken coop. I guessed the average trader wouldn’t have had much interest in building anything less rickety in a hamlet way out in the Big Woods. Such an investment in labor and time and wealth wouldn’t be worth it to a trader considering that nomads or gangs could sweep through and level the marketplace during a plundering spree. There were heavies around like Adahy to provide some protection to the merchants and traders, but heavies were likely to come and go and couldn’t always be counted on. Anyway, we got hold of some dried fish and meat, nuts and fruit, matches–things you’d sorely miss if you lacked them on the trails. Dunc spotted a trader offering snares and traps and was about to give up the stab vest for a pack of them. I stopped him before he traded it away and offered the dealer some plugs of White Cedars tobacco instead. It’s positively fine stuff and not easy to come by this far out in the Big Woods. Though he played at not being all that interested in the trade, it was easy to see that he was nearly drooling, and we got some good snares in return.
Just before we reached the campground, we came across a sorry sight. A poor sod was slumped in a pillory and taking the most awful abuse from passers-by. His face was bruised and bloody, and as we walked by, someone started pissing on his legs. I turned to Adahy and asked what the hell was going on.
“It’s one of the things that can happen when a trader or merchant gets caught cheating or doesn’t pay the council its cut on time,” he explained. “You get caught, well, you might just get your ass kicked around some, but you could wind up like him here–or worse.”
“How long’s he got to stand there?” Dunc asked.
“Depends on the council judgment. Sometimes a day, sometimes longer. Better than what happens if you get caught cheating a second time.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That depends, too.” He pointed at the fellow in the stocks. “That eejit there, he’s gotta put up with what he gets dished, but the rule is nothing lethal and no permanent damage. Nothing like eye gouging or leg breaking, see. It’s more about shame and a little pain. This one’s a first timer in the stocks, but if he decides to stick around to trade or sell, he’d better not get caught messing about again. A second time means anything from losing a hand to losing a head, depending.”
“Pretty harsh, innit?” said Dunc.
Adahy just smiled at that. “Tends to keep everybody honest. There hasn’t been a head on a pole around here for lotsa years. Course you’re always gonna have your bonehead who thinks he can get away with a fast one. By the way, didn’t ya see that jar of pickled hands on the red stand where you first walked in? No? Well, even that doesn’t keep everyone from trying.”