The Totem-Maker: Use for Use (part six)
My patron, not in the least unforthcoming, sat giving me nods, smiles, speaking syllables of agreement. I excused myself to the yard to fetch my pony, finding the trader’s arrows had landed him two hares. They hung by the feet in my stable.
I scurried, at a thought, indoors again.
The thought was unworthy of my new friend’s kindliness. And my purpose I had not concealed from him, rushing up short before the table. The Trio shone in their places; the trader’s eye, holding mine a moment, twinkled. The tone of his words was just as I’d have used, if I chided: “Don’t you worry.”
I apologized, and murmured, bowing out again for Cuerpha: “They are dangerous. They put ideas in one’s head.”
He came leading his horse through the damp little passage between rock face and stable wall, the rock curved like the half of a tunnel. Snow that fell blew clear of this gusty place or never entered. He pegged up tackle, laid aside bundles and bags slung across the horse’s flanks. And ahead of the tollhouse keeper, who stood staring, he went inside, with one particular bundle on his shoulder.
My pony stalled and blanketed, I joined him on a burst of wind, strong enough to slam the door at my heels. I made show of haste, hugging arms to my chest, darting a smile. I was chuckled at. Sunlight through the shutters streaked on and off…light of lead-gold hue, dying fingers of it piercing a blue bank of cloud.
His remark I read again by tone. “We’re for it.”
I hadn’t thought of this; this shy-making conundrum of days, perhaps, spent with a lodger. I unhooked the skin rolled above the shutter to cover the rear window, and my guest, learning his task at once, unhooked that at front.
After the chores of the fire, we spitted meat, dividing one hare. I offered him those foodstuffs that I possessed. I heated water and steeped the needles I’d collected. The result was not wholly excellent, but a brew much improved by the trader’s salt-stone. Such I hadn’t seen, this he unwrapped… And the unwrapping itself gave me study. His gear was in a woolen cloth, four triangles folded to make a smaller square, and four again. Inside the folds were a number of things, garments as I supposed, rolled to protect others. Soon he had created a bed for himself, having pulled out pans and utensils, small leather purses, filled each with necessities. One held his seasonings…and with a knife he shaved bits from what looked a frosted pink gem, into the pot. I tasted and understood.
Salt, got from the sea when I’d lived in the House of Decima. Salt for the meat, salt to make a soup of pine-flavored water, a handful of seeds thrown in to fatten…
I blessed the salt.
Now it seemed time to sleep, the room growing cold, the winds relentless. But my friend dusted ashes from the hearthstone. Over a space of the floor, he smoothed them with his palm. I guessed at first he was himself a fortuneteller, ash the medium of his people. But instead, he made a picture. He drew a wall and a road. The road arced downwards from a fortressed place, passed through mountains to what soon became a house. My house…he pointed to it in such a way. He palmed the dust again, and drew his road onward.
He drew a city, Balbaec…I could not know that it was. I pronounced the name, and he shrugged. Yet I guessed his story told of his living, the path he followed, the places he visited. I sketched an arrow back from the city, back, as the narrative had it, though erased, up the mountain highway to the tollhouse. I gave him questioning hands and eyebrows, and his head bobbed yes.
He lifted a finger, found coins in one of his purses, dropped these from left hand to right. He palmed the dust and drew the house again, laid a coin at its doorstone. But inviting me with a gesture that seemed to say, take it, he shook his head, snatched the coin, his smile…
Playful, perhaps. He rooted among his gear, bringing out a pair of short boots. I thought them another of his own: they were identical. But a moment more, and using the coin, the house, the boots, he’d wakened sense in my mind. Rather than accept his money, I would accept warm feet, a thing I needed. Very badly did I need these boots, but I did not feel the tolls to be a payment I earned. Aeixiea’s coins were not mine. The tolls were not mine.
But the trader placed the salt beside the boots. He unrolled another cloth and here were balls of yarn, such as he’d used knitting when I’d met him. He conveyed he would teach me this art, and I would buy the implements and materials. Again, so precisely what I sought…that practical task, the chore worth the time spent. The means of filling my free hours that would help me steal a march on my others—and give me more free hours to make more useful things.
When the warm winds returned, I knew them better, for my new friend’s instruction. I had confessed to him, as clearly as our created language allowed, how I’d fallen and might have died. He found this comic, and I will never know if I’d made it so by the telling. His willingness to laugh at me was lack of fear (a thing I expected to inspire in no one), and his disregard for an officer holding a post of import…if I were that officer. But he’d explained, if I had not well learned it, that these winter thaws and freezes made the clifftops treacherous.
And my earthquake had not been after all. The trader gave me news of a mighty rock fall, drawing for me the face of a broken mountain, gouged like a hunk of bread torn with fingers.
At the end of his stay I’d bought more of him, I don’t know how.
Or rather, not what any of it might reasonably have cost, and the trader seemed indifferent. Sewing kit, yarn, knitting needles, salt and some few of his herbs. Boots and the raw fleece to stuff inside until they fit. A bow and some arrows.
I tried to offer him one of the Seeds, wanting rid of it. My thought was that a pretty thing…
They were pretty. They might not, to wiser eyes, feel sinister…
Would go for a price, to a merchant in Balbaec.
The trader made a sign. Not ours, but easy to read. I realized then he’d kept well away from them.
Use for Use
(2020, Stephanie Foster)