Chapter Octagonal Number Three
On the next day, Denario and Jack sailed into a Kilmun village of about two hundred people, and then another village twice that size a half-mile downstream, each with an all-day party inside.
At the first place, a round-faced boy, knee high, toddled up to the hitching stump and gave Denario a chunk of flatbread glazed with honey. The little fellow had a whole pie of it. He also had a sticky face covered with honey. He wore so many crumbs that the accountant had mistaken his condition for a disease at first glance. Instead of stepping away, he thanked the boy earnestly. He tore off a bite of the bread. Delicious. The boy smiled at his expression. He knew how Denario felt. A moment later, he wandered away.
A red-haired girl approached as he was finishing the tie-down at the third stump. She handed him daisies, which he felt obliged to accept. Her patient expression let him know she was waiting for something. He complimented the flowers. He said her dress was very green. That got a smile and a treat from her, a chunk of nut loaf baked with some kind of sugar.
“You're being very kind,” he said.
“You sure look funny. Where are your tattoos?”
Denario turned to his boat-master for explanation. Jack had elected to change his shirt and trim his beard, as he often did before business negotiations. He was rolling up his cuffs when he said simply, “It's the Festival of the Children.”
“And what's that?” the accountant wondered. The girl, like the boy, had been distracted by the commotion in town, a carnival of some kind. She marched off toward the noise with a bouquet of flowers still tucked under her right arm.
“You don't have this holiday in your city? The biggest children without tattoos get to act important and issue orders to adults for a day. You and I want to stay well away from them. The littlest ones do as they please. Often, that involves hitting adults. But it can involve giving out treats, too, as you can see.”
“Can we do business?”
“Iffy. Over the years, I've established that I'm not a villager and not bound by their rules. But the parents I want to see won't make deals with me today. Their oldest children will take their place.”
“Will the children listen?”
“The girls are usually sensible.”
At the north end of the village, Jack managed to flatter a pair of stern, imperious young ladies into giving him quite a nice deal on two tuns of 'smelly old barley.' They acted like they were being mean but they give out gifts of sweet cheese and in the end they demanded kisses from Jack and Denario as part of the deal. Jack agreed but, with an eye to their parents, made sure to peck them lightly on their blushing cheeks, a gesture that Denario imitated. Their mother nodded gratefully, arms crossed. Denario was sure the daughters would be hearing from her after the festival. Jack, being clever, also pressed his flattery on other tall children, three girls in their turn and a boy who seemed to be running the brewery and wasn't actually pummeling anyone at the moment despite swinging around a wooden mash hammer. The rafts acquired 'smelly old beets,' a dozen 'dirty wash basins' made of brass, and twelve kegs. They traded sour pickles, sweet pickles, cinnamon, beet sugar, and pepper.
At the dock in the second village, a crowd of young boys batted Denario with sticks as soon as he stepped off of the boat. It didn't hurt. They seemed to be doing it out of habit as much as anything. Probably their arms were tired. Four of them wore fake beards. One of those gave him half an apple right from his grubby mouth.
“How long does this go on?” Denario crunched the apple in his teeth. It was sour but fresh.
“Until sun-up on the following day.” Jack waded through the children. The boys had been attracted by the arrival of the rafts, a major event, but there was a stilt parade in the center of town and the strange rivermen weren't doing much. By the time Denario finished tying down, most of the boys had run off to follow a large boy on stilts. That boy had tried to give orders to Jack, who'd ignored them. Then the boy stomped off in a huff, trailed by adoring eight-year-olds.
“The dock master isn't here,” said Jack. “You'll have to stand guard the whole time.”
Denario nodded. He'd done this duty on a dozen occasions.
“He's a decent fellow but he was probably ordered off by the bossy boy. That's the way the holiday is. If the older kids give you trouble, point out your lack of tattoos. That ought to be good for something. Also, I'd prefer you not to draw your sword on them. Their parents would give me grief about it later. Feel free to lay about with the punt if you need to.”
“I wouldn't hurt children unless they look to be thieves.”
“You did well enough against sneaks before. I suppose a city upbringing is good for something.”
The accountant shook his head. A few days back, he’d gotten fooled. A girl had stopped to talk with him. She'd been such a good conversationalist, except about math, that he hadn't noticed as her young man swam up from behind the rafts and tried to remove the closest barrel from the corner deck. The thief had been stymied by his abundance of choices. First, there was the impossibility of stealing the sack of beet sugar by swimming with it through the water. He'd soon end up with only a sack. Then there were boxes and jars to choose from but the tie-down pegs had been a nasty surprise. Denario followed the girl's eyes, turned, and saw the young man trying to pull up a barrel of pigs' knuckles. At Denario's shout, he'd stopped that but then managed to lift a jug of lighting and scamper back into the water before Denario whacked him with the punt. Then Denario had rushed back to hammer at the girl, who was trying something similar, again with a jug of lightning water. Her eyes had popped wide at the sight of him and she'd fled with nothing.
Since her brother or lover had gotten away successfully, Jack had complained to the town burgher. But it turned out that the girl had been found in the wild a week earlier and was admitted to the temple as a charity case. No one knew anything about her partner. So Jack had to be satisfied with the results of hiring an accountant as a guard.
“Get yourself a decent lunch,” Jack suggested. “You've eaten that apple down to the stem.”
Denario tossed his core into the creek. After the splash, a curious fish rose to take a nibble. He watched for a moment to see if the fish would return. Then he took his boss's advice. Denario dipped into the ship rations for jerky, dried peaches, and a skin of sour beer. Jack had warned him against drinking creek water this close to the lost temple and the boatman meant it, too. He'd been drinking only boiled water himself for the past two days. Denario didn't feel like starting a fire. Ale, even if it was half rotten, seemed like a better way to go than wine or lightning.
From his seat on the gunwhales of the middle boat, the third boat being the partial one made of mallow, Denario watched as two boys and a girl clumped along the road in stilts. They might have been members of the parade, which sounded as if it had broken up. The near-adolescents paused to shout at him. Following the boat-master's example, he paid them no attention. They had a hard time staying in one place, too, without getting down from their stilts. They got the hint and moved on.
Later, as he was draining the beer skin, Denario saw four boys, one of them barely old enough to walk, wearing fake beards and holding birch sticks. They patiently whacked a grown man as he pushed a load of earthen bricks in a barrow. He accepted the abuse in a good-natured way even as he passed through the doors of building off of the main road. It had a thatched roof and six chimneys. That meant it was the kiln house. This town looked prosperous despite its odd traditions. Not long after, he saw two more adults as they took a serious beating. They didn't seem as accepting of the abuse as the one with the barrow. From their attitude and clothes, he guessed they were burghers. The kids following looked muscular and their sticks were twice as thick as those used against Denario. They passed around the boat shed more than once and, in doing so, picked up additional children with sticks in their hands.
Denario stood. The punt, which had been laying across his lap, fell into his right fist. With his left, he capped his beer. Something looked wrong. He wasn't sure what it was but he laid down the capped skin and set his feet ready. Twenty yards in front, the two burghers decided, dignity be damned, they were going to flee. They got a few steps' head start. With a lusty shout, the youngsters pursued.
One child lingered at the far corner of the boat house. He was too tired to run or too lazy. His fake beard was the only one that had grey in it, Denario noticed. He looked chubby, which would have been unusual in the Seven Valleys but not so much here to the south. He stood and tugged absent-mindedly at the loose curls above his belly. After a minute, he turned to studied Denario and the rafts. That was when Denario decided that he knew what was wrong.
To be safe, he let his gaze pass over the waters of the No Map. There was no one in the creek sneaking up on him from behind.
He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Hey boy! Want some peaches?”
The figure took a moment to understand that Denario meant him even though they were the only ones around. That proved Denario's point. The accountant found it hard not to laugh. He propped the punt between his elbow and hip. He jammed his hands into his pockets and waited.
“Where'd you get peaches?” The reply came in an unsteady voice. Denario felt even more sure of himself. Still, there would be some uncertainly until he got close. “It's spring, not fall.”
“They're dried. It's just like you've seen with apples, only fancier. We trade them. I've got two small ones left from lunch.”
The short fellow couldn't help himself. Although he stopped fingering his beard, he kept one hand on his stomach. In a roundabout path, he approached. Denario could see, in the sand of the riverbank, how far sideways those stubby feet shuffled. He noticed the boots, too. Most of the children here went barefoot. The richer lads had thin slippers. This one wore hiking boots. They were sturdy enough to kick trolls. The fit of the boot cuffs around those muscular calves seemed tight enough to be waterproof.
The accountant stooped to pull out the remaining peaches from his lunch bowl. His guest hesitated. But when offered the treats with an open hand, he let a grin escape above the wisps of beard. His grey eyes glinted.
He hopped forward, snatched the peach halves like they would disappear at any moment, and shied back out of arm's reach. He popped one in his mouth. Then, to Denario's momentary confusion, he spat it back out into his hand. He seemed to remember his manners. He blushed pink. With the scoop of his left arm, he bowed.
“My thanks, good boatman.” His voice wasn't quite as high as before. After he rose, he allowed himself a bite of the peach. “Ah. I'd almost forgotten how sweet. They remind me of Wizard Valley.”
“So that's where you came from. I thought so.”
“Oh.” His face fell. He knew he'd been caught.
Next: Chapter Twenty-Two, Scene One