Forral leaned back in his chair. Opposite him the tribesman was sweating, despite the cold. Forral deemed it a tribute to his own skill.
"But such a price!", the man began, mopping his brow with the sleeve of his buryat
, "An insult! I could not think ..." His words were swallowed by a sudden bout of coughing.
Forral took advantage of the tribesman's infirmity. "You could, Siymow. In fact, you are thinking of it even now, for all your bluster". He watched the look of puzzlement flicker over Siymow's face and felt a little cat purr of amusement. For years the Tribes of the Plains of Osta had demanded obeisance from all who traded with them and, alongside that obeisance, they had demanded the highest prices for their goods. But, as Forral and Siymow both knew, years wear one into another and each year is different from the last. This was a year of change.
Forral waited for Siymow to compose himself and prepare to speak again, then cut across him just as he began. "They say the Tribes are leaving the plains". He said it casually, in the spirit of enquiry, but, just as Forral had expected, Siymow was too experienced a negotiator to be drawn out so easily.
Forral ticked off a few more moments in his head, then spoke again, this time his voice more confidential. "They say they're leaving quickly".
And it was true: there had been rumours for months now, running here and there through the port like a child chasing after a hare; rumours of disease, of deaths around the campfires and within the gers
, rumours of ... but no, Forral would not credit such a thing. And now it was said that the Tribes were fleeing the Plains, seeking to escape whatever pestilence had come upon them. Whatever the worth of such claims, Forral knew one thing to be true and that was that men like Siymow, men who had once been happy to laugh at the merchants from the East, had discovered a sudden humility.
"No Siymow", Forral continued at last, "you are not the first to set your path towards this house today and I doubt you will be the last. The very best I could offer you is ..." And then he offered Siymow one-twelfth part of the worth of his goods, the opening gambit in what he was assured would be a pleasurable negotiation. What he did not expect was for his offer to be accepted readily, eagerly, and yet that is what Siymow did. As Forral joined his hands with the tribesman to seal the bargain, he took the opportunity to look deep into the his eyes. There could be no doubt of what he saw within them: it was fear, as deep and dark and cold as the nights upon the Plains themselves. Later, as Siymow hurried back to his camp
on his hump-backed mount, Forral remembered that fear and looked about him, as if trying to spy out its source. Then he shivered and turned back towards the merchant house, taking the opportunity to distract himself by exchanging some words with the guard who stood coughing beside the door. "You should speak with one of the Veils; their cures can be trusted, I am sure", he said. Despite the advice, the guard was still coughing outside the tent when the time came for Forral to retire.
The next morning, the guard was dead.
Servants were sent for and despatched. An officiant from the morthouse was dragged from his work, the body taken away. In two days time, Forral would be expected to light the man's pyre and make the sending speech. He would also be expected to pay for it. He grumbled at Fate for Its thoughtlessness and at the guard for a lack of devotion to his duty. In this last, Forral was mistaken: the next morning, when Forral stepped out of his front door, there was the guard standing at his post; no light shone in his eye, no word would pass his lips and he gave no sign of thought or care, yet there he was.
The Veil was at the merchant house within the hour, listening to his tale, scrutinising him despite the cloth bound about her face. At the end of her examination she spoke, providing the answer to a question Forral had not yet asked.
"Two weeks ago, I was called to visit the tribes. Death, so they said, had come among them and was visiting women and men and cattle. And, so they claimed, those Death visited It would not leave as it should, instead choosing to toy with them like a child with a doll, puppeting them through the routines of their lives for hours, for days on end. I admit, despite my vows, I almost laughed; such tales were, I knew, merely the force of superstition working upon the minds of the tribes but my vows are my vows and I went out among them".
She paused for a moment, examining a memory with her mind's eye.
"They took me first to a small ger
on the edge of their camp. Two women, one old, one young, sat beside a fire, chewing on leather to soften it. There was a strange distraction about them. Instead of the exchanging of stories and the songs summoned unconsciously to the lips that usually accompany such mindless tasks, they worked in near silence, all the while looking over in the direction of a young girl, sat a little way off. She was no more than five or six years old and she sat in silence, working her jaw, as if in imitation of the women. I had just begun to ponder this little scene when a man was brought out of the ger
to speak to me. He had tears in his eyes and something else, something wild, too. He told me his daughter, "the sweet herb that took away life's bitterness", had died the night before. I laid my hand upon his shoulder and spoke what words of comfort I could, conscious that none could truly ease his grief. Then I asked him to show me his daughter's body, so that I could see such marks as her illness may have left. He raised his hand and pointed me to the little girl, seated not so far from her mother and sister, her jaw working away silently at nothing. And then the tears came to him once more".
The Veil turned her unseen face away from Forral. "They call it the Murrain. It takes the lives of men and women and children, then steps a while in their shoes. It is a new dance for Death and many, oh so many, feet will follow the beat of Death's drum". Her words ceased. Until that moment, Forral, who could tell the weight and value of anything at a glance, had not known how heavy silence could be. The Veil's voice was soft when she continued. "You would do well to leave this place, Master Forral. You would do well to leave it soon".
She walked away a little distance, leaving Forral to his thoughts: thoughts which, for the first time in many months, turned away from money and from bargains and the thousand things, big and little, that must be done to trade in this wild place so far from home; now they faced back along the road to Otherwhile, towards his wife and towards his own daughter. What were the Veil's words about the tribesman's daughter? "The sweet herb that took away life's bitterness"? Such was Forral's daughter too.
It was the beggar that decided him. Forral had noticed her on his first day in the little trade port: a wizened creature, her face crow-touched, as they say: one side neither so fair nor so foul as to attract notice, the other carbuncular and black-stained, the eye altogether closed over. She had a regular routine, one they told him she had carried on for years, coming past the merchant house at the same time every day, beating a rusty bell with a wooden stick as she called for alms. Forral had sent one of his burlier servants to encourage her to alter her route; the man had come back to him red-knuckled and confident of his success in his task. He had been right: the beggar did not pass the merchant house for months. And then, one day, not long after the death of the guard, there she was again, bell in hand, trudging across the square as she had done so many times before. Perhaps it was that Forral was still unsettled but there was something about the beggar's actions that enraged him, so that he himself left his counting room and marched out into the square, intent on accosting her. Striding up to her rapidly from behind, he placed a hand upon her arm and span her round, ready to vent his ire upon her. Instead, he found himself leaping back, while the beggar fell to the ground, her legs still pacing automatically even as her back struck the cobbles. It was clear she was dead.
Within a day, Forral was standing in the sterncastle of a cog bound for Afar, watching the port recede. Beside him stood the Veil, on her way, like him, to Otherwhile. There had been hard bargaining there and much persuasion but Forral was satisfied that the better of the deal was his. She would let him defray the cost of her passage, he would have the benefit of her leechcraft. He did his best not to look at her; like all of her Order she stood very tall, a physical manifestation of her rectitude, to Forral it felt like a rebuke. Even though he could not see her eyes behind their cloth, he felt sure that they were examining him; he did not like to think of what they saw. He stared down into the body of the boat, where stood the intricately-woven rugs, warming spices and delicately-wrought trinkets of gold and silver that he had purchased from the tribesmen. The men and women of his merchant house, meanwhile, remained within the port, carrying out their duties, as yet unaware of Death's new dance. There was something about that thought that felt to Forral like the chime of a cracked bell as it resonated within him. He was glad when the sky began to darken: it gave him the excuse he needed to move to the little cabin beneath the sterncastle. The Veil, meanwhile, did not quit her post.
On the third day, the cog put in to a narrow-harboured settlement to pick up food and fresh water. Ordinarily Forral would have enjoyed the opportunity for trade but now the lost time filled him only with impatience. His brief conversations with the Veil had convinced him that Death was dancing at a merry pace and he was eager to outdistance It. He spoke to the captain again, and found himself offering a handsome reward if the fellow could hasten the voyage. The captain nodded, gave a tight-faced grin and promised to do all in his power. Forral was not sure that he trusted him but then he was no longer sure he trusted himself; he felt drained and his mind was clouded; thoughts of the guard and of the beggar and of those men and women of his service that he had left behind at the port pattered through what little sleep he could find. The journey would be a long one.
It was on the seventh day, a day of little wind and slow travelling, that Forral noticed one of the crewmen sweating at his post despite the cold that had haunted the ship's progress from the day it quit its port. Forral said nothing, preferring instead to observe the man from a distance as he went about his business. Why did he take so long at his task? Why did he stumble? Was it the force of the waves or something else, something within him, at work? Was that a cough? Was that blood? All these questions circled and recircled through Forral's mind as he watched the sailor.
At length he went to find the Veil, to ask her opinion.
"Is it ... is it the Murrain?" The words fell from him as he stared into the rumpled blankness that obscured the Veil's face.
"No," she said, "oh no. A cold perhaps. Or a chaw of duskweed. That's all". And then she took his hand in her own. "And even if it were the Murrain, which I say again it is not, what could we do? He has been among us these seven days and among his crewmates for many more. If he is sick, then so are we all, though we do not know it yet. Why put on the cloak of concern when its weight can only bow our shoulders?"
She held Farrol's hand a moment more, bringing her cloth-covered face directly before him, keen to impress her point upon him. Then, with a pat upon his arm, she released and dismissed him.
That night Farrol could not sleep. He could find no balm in the Veil's words. As Time trudged deep into the night and then turned at last towards day, Farrol found himself rising from his pallet and stepping out into the body of the cog. The boat was anchored, the crew asleep, the many-tongued sea licked at the boat's sides, gentle as a ewe with her new-born lamb. Farrol stepped carefully towards the boat's prow, moving gently over the canvas-draped barrels that stocked its hull. Perhaps he wished to think, perhaps to see the stars, perhaps to find such breeze as he could to cool him, but what he discovered instead was the snoring form of the sickened sailor, lying against the side of the boat, his head and one shoulder collapsed over the strakes. From his lips a trail of dark green spittle led down towards the water..
Duskweed, then: the Veil had been correct. And yet Forral did not move. A man may ail and yet chew duskweed. A man may chew duskweed to dull the pain of his ailing. A man may ...
The sailor shifted his position in his sleep. Forral drew back, as if caught in some unworthy act. It was time for him to leave now, he knew. He collected himself, turning his thoughts away from the sailor and towards his own wife and daughter. He thought of his daughter's smile: there at last was the quiet bower in which to rest his troubled thoughts. He would do much to preserve that smile.
It was not long later that Forral returned to his pallet. And now sleep found him almost the instant he lowered his head and he did not dream but once and that dream was a happy one. About him the ship rolled gently and the waves licked and lapped and there was nothing any more to disturb him.
And yet all was not well upon the cog.
In all, the voyage to Afar took ten days longer than expected. "A hard enough crossing at any time," the captain explained to Farrol as they watched the unloading, "and harder yet with a man lost". Farrol nodded at this, giving a look that contained little sympathy. The captain could not expect his full price, not with so tardy an arrival. And surely the captain could blame no other than himself; after all, it was he who had hired a man so duskweed drunk that he could walk off the edge of his own boat.
The captain said nothing and accepted such price for the journey as Farrol was kind enough to give him. He was eager to put off: there were rumours in the market of a sickness, arrived with an earlier boat from the Plains. For some reason, he forgot to share these tidings with Farrol.
The captain gone, Farrol turned to the Veil, who had stood patiently to one side whilst the negotiation were concluded. "And so we make our way on", he said.
"No", she replied, "I am afraid I cannot".
Farrol was unused to such blunt refusal and the words to respond came on lame legs, giving the Veil time to continue.
"Those of my order have never claimed and never sought the gift of other sight and yet, I find when I look at you I can perceive the outlines of a future, limned in ashes. I see hints of accidents and unfortunes befalling those with whom you travel. It is a long way yet from Afar to Otherwhile and, I confess, I fear to walk such a distance at your side". So saying, she pressed a pouch of coin into Farrol's hand. "For your trouble", she said before adding "And have no fear for the captain: I have paid my full share for the voyage".
She walked away, her cloth-bound head held high as ever. Farrol stood, stunned. What could the Veil have meant? What were these accidents and unfortunes? At length, he found himself spitting into the dirt over which she had passed unsullied.
And then it was time to make haste once more. For all the captain's forgetfulness, the news of the Murrain's arrival in Afar did not take long to make its way to Farrol's ears. The disease moved swiftly, yet Farrol was determined to outdistance it. Soon he would be back in Otherwhile, soon he would take up his wife and his bright-eyed daughter. Soon they would be on his lands in the Maelwyst Hills, safe and secure and far from Death's dance.
Farrol travelled swift as any man could, brooking no delay on his path. And, just as the Veil had foretold, many were the ill-fortunes suffered by those who travelled the same path: families running from Death's dance found themselves cheated of their fleet-footed horses; towns that had closed their doors to all as they sought to escape the depradations of the Murrain found their gates flung open by the power of promised moneys; and all the while a different malady haunted those who happened to journey at Farrol's side, so that any man or woman or even child who showed the slightest sign of sickness would suddenly be lost in Afar's endless sands, or in the depths of the Surraft Sea, or in the endless dark of the Silent Forest. Many, so many, were lost in this way and yet, through it all, Farrol remained strangely unaware, all the force of his intention directed upon his goal. And all the while, never so far behind him that Farrol could feel secure, tens and then hundreds and then tens of hundreds were linking hands with Death and joining in Its merry dance.
Months had passed by the time he arrived in Otherwhile, the gates at the keep guarding the pass opened by his coin and the mention of his name, just as so many others had been. Within, the Castellan was all eagerness, happy to make exception for so eminent and so generous a merchant, going so far as to give him the use of his own horse, lifting up his wine-bruised face as he handed Farrol the reins with an entreaty that he might remember him to the officials at Court. Farrol nodded, eager to be off, but the Castellan, as is the way of many a small man entrusted with a task, had one more thing to add. "If you would do me the signal kindness of being advised by me, I fear hard times are come to the world and such times make for desperate men. Your honour would do well to seek out companions for the journeying ahead". At this Farrol looked around. "Why", he said, "I had no idea I was alone".
Seven days later, just at dusk fall, Farrol entered at last into his demesne, sore and sweating and tired beyond all tiredness. For all his horse was broken-winded and lamed, for all the aching of his body, he felt something of happiness rise within him, making him feel giddy. He had travelled almost without pause since passing the borders of his homeland, stopping only at the Merchant House to advise his agents to make grand purchases of myrrh and lavender and such other scents as might be prized in a time of pestilence and to deal with such other such necessary matters. Now though, he was at home, riding among the trees of his orchard, hearing the sweet-sound of the river, seeing the walls of his manor rising into view. And then he heard the voice of which he had dreamed so long, his daughter's voice, calling out his name. He looked up and there she was at her window. waiting for him as she always did: older, yes, but somehow still the same, still safe, secure within her father's lands, far from the ravages of the Murrain.
At last, Farrol could quit his horse and step up to his door, even as it burst open to reveal wife and daughter: the one smiling the nervous, humbled smile that life with Farrol had painted her with for eternity, the other laughing and skipping towards her father just as she had done so many times before, rosy as the apples in the orchard. And then Farrol was scooping the little bundle that was his daughter and raising her up in the air and then clasping her close to him, this joyous creature to whom he had given life, the one thing in all the world for which he would name no price.
And then Farrol coughed.