Burrtail tried not to grunt as he swung the heavy sword, his bare chest glistening with perspiration. He was supposed to make a good impression, and it wouldn't do to let Leesha's customers see him straining. He brought the blade up, then swung straight down, at the last moment turning the motion to the right, then on around and back up, making an oval in the air; then down and to the left the second time. He made his way smoothly through a series of defensive moves, wishing there was room for the Great Circle. He was rather proud of mastering that practice maneuver, and it was quite spectacular. Unfortunately, under present circumstances performing it would involve removing various portions of the anatomy of his audience. Of course, the fact that he was using a sword longer than some of the adults in the audience were tall was impressive enough for most of them. Getting too fancy, and perhaps making a mistake, was really not worth the risk.
Leesha glanced over at her business partner and smiled. Like many of his folk, the big centaur was a born showman. She had rented an extra space in the market to let him show off, even though that meant taking a less than ideal location to get two side-by-side. The crowd he drew more than made up for the loss of business from the unfavorable site. The fact that he was demonstrating a prowess with weapons far beyond that of most thieves was an added bonus.
It had been a good month. After traveling west to east through the Parland Matriarchy the duo had moved north, skirting the western borders of the Mountain Elves to stop here, in the city-state of Knocks, on the southern border of the Fairy Ring. After finishing here Leesha planned to continue north into Three Cities to stop for fall and winter in Williamsburg. That was where Leesha had her home, and there she would sell what she could, then rest and recuperate. Next spring she would start the route over again. If the fall was mild she might even make one or more short trips north, into Bluegrass, before winter. That would definitely save her time in the spring.
She snapped back to the here and now as a customer came to her booth and carefully lowered his pack to the pavement.
"How much for the ground cover seeds?" asked the rough-hewn farmer, trying to look like he wasn't sneaking glances at Burrtail.
"Five silvers per packet," Leesha replied. "That's enough for a quarter-hectare. I give discounts on larger purchases."
"Do you take goods in trade?"
"That depends on the goods," Leesha replied.
The farmer bent down and reached into the pack to produce an apple.
"I figure the big fellah over there might have an interest in these," he announced, grinning.
Leesha polished the apple on her sleeve and took a bite. Then another.
"These are good. How are they for cider?"
"Fair," the farmer replied, grinning, "but if it's cider you want, try this."
A small jug was produced from the same pack, and Leesha brought out a cup for the sample.
"That's made from other apples, a type I use just for juicin'," the farmer informed Leesha as he poured.
"Quite good," Leesha judged. She gave the man an evaluating look. "Got any hard?"
"Not from this year's crop," the farmer told her, "Too early. Got some left from last year's, but my usual customers would flay me if I sold it to anyone else."
Leesha grinned at this bit of bragging, but if he fermented as well as he grew and pressed, he was probably not exaggerating too much. "So, how much seed are you looking for?"
"Enough for four hectares," the farmer said.
They haggled, Leesha making an offer of the necessary seed in return for some silver, apples and barrels of cider. The farmer countered, offering more cider and less silver. Both knew what they wanted and neither started too far from what they expected to other to want. A deal was reached, hands were shaken, and both brought out notebooks and wrote in them. If she hadn't been so close to home Leesha wouldn't have bothered with the heavy barrels of cider, but she knew some people in Williamsburg who would welcome the juice, the more so since the crop of juicing apples up north looked to be small this year.
"I'll be back a bit afore sundown with my cart," the farmer promised.
Leesha couldn't help grinning as the older man walked off. This was what she lived for. It wasn't just a matter of getting a good price, you had to know when to accept less than you wanted in order not to drive the customer away. She valued repeat business, and usually got it. People knew she drove a hard but fair bargain, in addition to having goods not available locally. The skills and personality which had brought her this reputation had made her a success where some who were better bargainers had quit the business. Being too ruthless was as bad as not being ruthless enough, a lesson many never learned. Burrtail, bless him, had many talents, but as a haggler he made a good draft horse. Like most of his people he was just too generous to be a good trader.
Finished with his sword practice, her partner ducked under the awning of Leesha's stall and put his blade away, then reached for his towel. He was covered in sweat, but not lather, since he hadn't been moving around enough to foam the perspiration. As he finished drying his human portion Leesha handed him the rest of the apple. He took it, absently handing her the damp towel in exchange, and sniffed it curiously. As Leesha held the cloth away from her with an exaggerated expression of disgust Burrtail delightedly ate the fruit.
"You liked that, did you?" asked Leesha. Burrtail nodded. "Well, I just made a deal with the farmer who brought that in as a sample. We'll have more by this evening. Just don't eat all our profits."
"I can't eat too many apples," said Burrtail, retrieving his towel. "They give me gas."
He finished drying, then lay down on a pallet he had previously placed in the stall and reached for the water jug. Not a cup; the whole jug.
"You empty that, you fill it," said Leesha.
Burrtail nodded again, as he took a deep draw on the jug. He was glad to be behind the table for a while. He had very few qualms about being nude among friends, but appearing bare naked in front of staring strangers made the big centaur a little uneasy. Still, most of the people were simply curious, and many were friendly. He'd talked with some of them, exchanging questions about lives and lands. So, in addition to helping attract customers, he was gathering a lot of information. That was a large part of what his people lived for.
Thirst sated, Burrtail rose, pulled on his tunic and walked over to the pump in the middle of the square. He moved slowly and carefully, not just because of the crowd of people but also because of the horses some of them rode or had pulling their wagons. The Plains Folk didn't use horses themselves; when they needed draft animals they used llamas or oxen, like most of the people in the area. Horses were rare back home, and usually were ponies rather than full-sized horses. Here there were large draft horses, about Burrtail's size.
He found their reactions amusing. Burrtail looked like he was part horse, but he smelled completely human, so the horses saw and heard something that resembled another horse, but smelled like a very strange human. This confused them. Some shied away, but most tried to get a better look/smell of this strange creature.
The centaur grinned at a curious mare who stretched her neck in his direction, nostrils flaring, while he waited for his turn at the pump. As he stepped forward, she snorted and shook her head, deciding that he wasn't really a stallion. The jug filled, Burrtail headed back to the booth.
"I need to get away for a few minutes," he told Leesha.
She grinned and waved him off. Burrtail could in no way fit into the public reliefs, and he wasn't simply going to do his business in the street like a horse. This was a problem they faced in any town, but in one this big there were added complications, since he couldn't easily trot off into the woods. Fortunately, the town - city, really - of Knocks was big enough to have several parks of varying size. The market was laid out along one long edge of the largest. Burrtail had found a copse of trees dense enough for him to have some privacy while relieving himself. All he had to do was cast a blending spell while walking through the brush, and no one would even think to look for him.
Leesha was busy for a while, but soon after this realized that she needed to go, too. While it wasn't as much of a production for her as it was for Burrtail, she couldn't leave the booth until he returned... and he had been gone longer than she expected. Finally, just as she was about to ask one of the Warders to go looking for him, she saw her partner returning.
"Watch the table for a few minutes," she told him, before hurrying off.
When she returned Burrtail was laying behind the table talking with a pair of women and a man, killing time until Leesha could do the actual bargaining. She smiled and nodded to him, and moved smoothly into the negotiations. Afterwards, with another deal made to her satisfaction, Leesha turned to the centaur.
"What took you so long?" she asked, more out of curiosity than irritation.
"I went by a different route this time and found some old tech," he explained. "Nothing really special; just interesting. A working maintenance rob, trimming the grass. Someone really did a good job on the protection and repair spells on that thing. It was fun to talk to."
The rest of the day passed uneventfully. As the market closed down at dusk the last of the day's promised deliveries and exchanges were made. With their work over for now Leesha and Burrtail packed their goods away. This was their last night in town and they decided to celebrate. They made sure the market guards they had paid were actually patrolling the area, then went to the fair on the other side of the park.
Both fair and market had begun as small, once-a-week affairs, each part of the reason for the other. Now they were a large portion of the livelihood of the town. As with the market, the fair was a mixture of long-term, local enterprises and traveling concerns. Many of the acts involved non-human creatures of various sorts, both sentient and non. Leesha was relieved to learn that the Knocks city fathers made sure any animals used in these acts were well-treated. Of course, there was no way to legislate an open, educated mind. Several of the exhibitors tried enticing Burrtail to join their shows. Two tried to buy him from Leesha. One of these was so obnoxiously condescending towards her and obliviously bigoted towards Burrtail - speaking as if the big centaur couldn't understand him while attempting to charm Leesha into parting with her "pet" - that Burrtail had to physically restrain her.
"Easy," said Burrtail, as he half-dragged Leesha away, leaving the hawker looking confused. "We'll report him to the Warders. He's probably violating their anti-slavery laws."
Leesha allowed herself to be mollified with some sweets. As she licked the hard candy, she heard a voice calling out for Burrtail. She couldn't see who it was, through the press of fairgoers, but Burrtail - with his height advantage - could, and he grinned in delight.
"Poni!" he called out.
A buxom young woman wearing a dancer's outfit hurried up and threw herself into Burrtail's arms. To Leesha's surprise and her partner's obvious embarrassment, she then kissed him full on the lips.
"I saw you go by while I was getting some lemonade and just ran right out after you!" the stranger exclaimed, after Burrtail put her down. Leesha thought the woman looked and sounded familiar but couldn't place her.
"What are you doing here?" laughed Burrtail.
"Oh, I come here every year about this time. Have for years. I heard about the fair a long time ago and I try to get here to dance during the busy part of the season."
Now Leesha remembered, and her attitude reoriented drastically. Small wonder she hadn't recognized the woman; the last time she had seen Poni the leggy blond had looked like she was part horse. Not a centaur, but a human with equine coat, ears and tail. Poni was one of the ancient Gifted, transformed by the mysterious event. She could alter her appearance to look like anything from completely human - as she did now - to completely horse. She was an old friend of Marian's, one of those who had helped create the Plains Folk; Leesha had met her while staying with Burrtail's family a few years back.
"Poni, do you know Leesha?"
"Oh, of course!" the dancer exclaimed, giving the trader a hug only slightly less enthusiastic than the one Burrtail had received. "Its so good to see familiar faces! Well, I know a lot of people here, especially the other performers, but people from back home are different, right?"
It was amazing to listen to her, and to realize that she was over thirteen centuries old. Age may have brought wisdom to this member of the Gifted, but not maturity or restraint. Leesha assumed she had changed to human form to avoid recognition. Poni certainly hadn't done it to avoid attracting attention; what she was wearing would have gotten her arrested outside the fair.
"You two promise to come see my act! I'm over in the Brodhead in half an hour!"
"We'll be there!" promised Burrtail, grinning, as Poni hurried back to rejoin her performer friends at the refreshment tent.
Leesha wasn't exactly thrilled at the idea of going to see an erotic dancer in one of the sleaziest establishment at the fair, but she didn't want to Burrtail to disappoint his friend and couldn't think of an excuse to get out of going herself. The trader sighed with resignation.
Actually, it wasn't nearly as bad as she had feared. The Brodhead had become much cleaner and more respectable since the one time Leesha had wandered in by accident three years earlier. There were other women here, some of them with men, some with other women. She noticed that many of those with other women were Warders. All Warders were required to swear an oath to avoid romantic involvement with members of the opposite sex. This led to the belief that they were all Gays and Butchers. The fact that a large portion of the female members did prefer women to men lent much strength to this stereotype.
Burrtail, of course, attracted a great deal of attention. It also appeared that Poni had put in a word for him; the centaur and his companion were shown to a table near the stage, and there was a pad ready for Burrtail to lay on.
They got settled at the table just in time. The mage lights dimmed and the music started. Poni - back into her accustomed semi-equine form - came out onto the large stage alone, which was unusual. As it turned out, she needed the room. Leesha was left gaping at a dance routine performed by someone with thirteen centuries of experience and practice and who possessed enough agility, speed and endurance to fully demonstrate this.
* * *
Leesha allowed herself the luxury of sleeping late the next morning. It was more than a day's trip to their next planned stop, the bill for the room and stable was paid through noon and they had been up late the night before. She had dreamed repeatedly of a humanoid palomino dancing with eerie grace and inhuman strength and speed. It had been strangely relaxing.
After a leisurely bath she discovered that Burrtail had already eaten and left, though not much before her. Leesha ate a good breakfast, gathered her belongings, and went out back to the stable where they had left the pack train and her mount. Burrtail was just finishing harnessing the llamas.
"Good morning!" he called cheerfully.
She waved a reply and went to saddle her horse.
"Easy, E'thany," she murmured, as the mare gave her an excited greeting. The horse was bored with the stable, and knew they would soon be on the trail. Of course, within a day the mare would be grumbling about the hardships of the journey and wishing to be back in a nice stall.
Thinking about this, Leesha grinned as she saddled E'thany. The mare seemed to realize that she was the subject of some joke and was a bit uncooperative, but Leesha soon had her ready.
"You all set?" she asked Burrtail as she exited the stable.
"Except for our goods," the centaur replied.
"That's next," promised Leesha.
They led the pack train into the market and to their booth, fighting through the crowds. This was the only bad part of rising late; it gave the market a chance to get well underway. However, today was a religious holiday for many people and so the crowds weren't as bad as the day before. Leesha identified herself to the market guards, checked her goods to make sure they were all there, and paid them the balance of their fee. She and Burrtail loaded the llamas, politely declining offers from several market urchins and hustlers to help. They weren't really needed, and like as not the packs would wind up lighter than they were supposed to be if Leesha allowed them to do the work.
"Finally," sighed Leesha, wiping her brow. She looked up at Burrtail. "Its almost noon. Want to eat first?"
"Nah; let's pick up something portable and eat on the road," the big centaur shook himself. "Its been fun but I'm anxious to get the dust of this place out of my coat."
That suited Leesha just fine.
* * *
They camped that night in a rock cut that Leesha knew from previous trips. It was a bit off the main trail, but close enough that it was used fairly often by travelers. Many times Leesha and her partners had shared the area with others, but tonight she and Burrtail were lucky.
Thanks in part to good weather they made good time and reached the side trail while they still had a couple of hours of light. Leesha knew they wouldn't find a place anywhere near as good any reasonable distance ahead. Besides, stopping now would give the llamas a chance to graze. They weren't short on feed, but a varied diet was good for them.
The packs were removed, placed on a ground cloth and covered with a tarp. The llamas, happy to be freed of their burdens, gamboled about almost like lambs for a while, before spreading out to browse. A small stream spattered down from the edge of the cut a bit away from their camp. The stream wasn't large enough to bathe in - at least not in this weather - but it gave them water for washing and cooking.
"I like this place," said Burrtail enthusiastically. "There's... something here, I don't know what, but it likes company."
"Probably some old traveler's comfort spell," said Leesha, absently.
As Burrtail puttered at the campfire, though, a sense of unease crept over Leesha. She looked around, and noticed that the llamas had become still and were all staring in the same direction. Then she saw the dog.
It wasn't very large, a hound in size and coloring, but it looked at her with unnaturally intelligent eyes. Leesha froze for a moment, then quietly called to her friend.
The centaur rose to his feet and turned towards the strange animal. The dog looked at him for a moment, then turned... and vanished, with a loud bang followed by a trailing rumble.
"What was that?" hissed Leesha.
"The Sooner Hound," whispered Burrtail, something like awe in his voice. He shook himself. "We're going to have company. The Hound's master is one of the ancient Gifted, a fellow named Fleet. I know him. He's an old friend of Marian's."
"You better smile when you call me old," said a new voice.
A man Leesha hadn't seen before walked up to Burrtail, the Sooner Hound trailing, tail wagging. He was about average height, but his eyes were strange, slanted, and his skin was an unusual color. He shook hands with Burrtail, then - grinning - poked a finger into the centaur's human abdomen.
"You never write!"
"Huh?" said Burrtail, startled.
"If Poni hadn't reported in we wouldn't have known where you were," Fleet explained. "You're supposed to report in every week."
"There wasn't anything to report," Burrtail replied, defensively.
"Which in itself could be important."
"You're not here just to lecture me on that."
"Quite right," Fleet said, nodding. He looked over at Leesha. "I understand that you are familiar with the land to the east of here, just the other side of the Mountain Elves' domain."
"Yes," said Leesha, warily. "I was born there."
"Good. We need someone to go and get someone for us. Someone who can be discreet and won't attract attention. Someone who belongs there."
"I wasn't exactly on good terms with the people there when I left," said Leesha, irritated.
"But you would have reason for returning. Perhaps to put something right?"
Well, yes, she did. That didn't mean she wanted to.
"What's in it for me?" she asked, ignoring Burrtail's glare.
"Nothing material. We can't be connected to you. But you will have the gratitude of the Illuminati Committee."
Leesha thought this through, meanwhile keeping her trader's face. What he had offered was no small thing. She knew enough about the Gifted and the other sorts on the Committee to realize the sort of power and influence they wielded. And there were things she wanted to check on in her old home.
"Burrtail goes with me?"
"Of course," said Fleet, nodding.
"Who do we get?"
"Someone who was in the Emperor's court," said Fleet. "He's decided he doesn't like what's happening, and wants to help us stop the Emperor. If you agree I'll give you a full description and contact details."
"What happens with the llamas?"
"You'd better take them with you," said Fleet. "That will help convince people that you're just a harmless trader."
"All right; I'm in."
"Just like that?" asked Burrtail.
"Just like that," said Leesha.
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.