#16 – The Merchant and The Minstrel

“What do we do?” She asked as she tried to peer between the shadow laden trees.

“Gather whatever you want, and either follow them, follow me, stay here or find your own way.” The merchant hollered from within the hut, hurriedly wrapping up food and his most prized trinkets. He placed two crusty cakes, a tin of loose seeds, a sack of nuts, fine fabrics, a small black mirror, his valued papers, maps, books, and the minstrel’s harp on a worn blanket and collected the six corners into his palm. He slumped the collection over his shoulder and hobbled blindly into the jungle.

The minstrel went back to the hut, found nothing left of value, and left. Out in the open, she realized that the merchant had disappeared into the thick brush, and staggered after someone’s path. She was following a foreign voice, and called out for the merchant.

From far off a call came back with words she knew. “Over here!” and she chased the roots of the sounds. He was a sloppy trekker, and had smashed a scathing trail through the brush, one which was easy to follow. When she caught up to him, he was leaning against a trunk with his sack resting on his foot. He held out the bag to her, and let go of it before she had grasped it. The minstrel caught the blanket before it struck the ground, and all the contents, save for a few seeds, remained enclosed. The merchant pushed off the tree, and swatted the foliage away with bloody fingers.

Their baggage was brutally heavy thanks to the harp and mirror, but her adrenaline fired up her rested body, and she followed without a qualm. The scattered escape and left the village folk spread out in clusters, and as they pushed on an occasional scream or shout would echo to them. They came from their left, and then from their right. The sounds of distress were, at first, distant then close, and then distant again. They kept going, with the only thought being away.

The dark blue of dawn was showing through the canopy’s gaps, and a strange stillness fell over the couple. The merchant stopped again to catch his breath, and as he panted with his hands braced against his legs, he froze. He held his air for a second, then bursted back to heavy heaves. The minstrel began to question why he had stopped, but he quickly snapped around and held out a stopping hand before her words materialized. He held his breath again, and his eyes scanned around them. It was silence. A silence so foreign to a jungle, which was so full of life. The birds had gone. There were no monkeys cackling down. Even the insects had ceased to chirp. The merchant stole a few noisy breaths, and went silent again. The minstrel had well trained ears, and she was the first to turn towards the only sound out there. The only sound was approaching. It was a faint snapping, like twigs or bark, from above. She pointed in the general direction, and through the trees hey both saw a sliver of movement, the sway of a trunk.

The monster jumped from tree to tree, bending the thin flexible wood to its way. The merchant, already flat against the ground, reached with one hand to tug on the merchant’s shirt, as he buried himself under the infested detritus. She began to follow his lead until the undergrowth in her hand released a mass of insects. She squatted down instead and held a wide, brown leaf over her head.

The approach of the beast was direct, but veered to its right when it would have passed overhead. The merchant face was squeezed tight, partly out of terror, and partly to keep the jungle bugs out of his eyes. The minstrel could not help but peek through the slits in her leafy cover. She watched the gray figure circle around them, and then circle again. He spiraled down, and inward directly over them. She was frozen, feeling caught, afraid to move for a better sight line. It stopped, and waited.

Her heart was throbbing, ready to go, and her basic instincts agreed to any direction. A flutter of leaves dislodged by the beast began to patter to the ground, and with a blending twitch, she shifted her cover to see it. Two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. Sharp and shiny in some patches, clumpy and muddy in others. It perched at the base of a branch, with one hand buried deep in the soft wood, and the other hanging loose. Its feet dug into the trunk, showing white lines where it had clawed away the bark. She found it’s face masked, a solid band of metal and glass, and although she couldn’t see its eyes, she could feel them.

Slowly she shed her cover. It never turned its head away. It just looked down as she reached for their belongings. She never broke contact, afraid that if she glanced away, it would become elusive again. She brought the belongings in front of her, much to the merchant’s silent groping protest. Her fingers found the golden, tiny audience, she pressed it to her chest, and began to play.

There was only one song that she could think of. It was the oldest, her first, and most perfected. It was a tale of the old world, of the masses who roamed and ruled. A song about the fall. A song sung in tongues old, new and strange. It was soft and sweet, and she slowed it down and embellished her favorite parts. When she ended her second verse, and played the interlude, the beast filled the air with words of his own. He matched the rhythm, and rhymed with snug pacing. Even behind his visor, she could hear a smile over his singing. She played them to the heart of the song where they joined as a chorus. She let him own the end of the song, and he ended it with a flourish. His voice boomed in merriment, as he wound his way around to the ground, leaving a helix of claw marks in the tree. He applauded as he approached, taking a moment to raise his visor and show his beaming human face. Each step sent a thud to wave underfoot, as his metal bulk plowed away the vegetation.

His words were rich and complex, but when he slowed his speech, the minstrel found some parts familiar. He spoke a language somewhat related to her homeland’s and after pleasantries they discovered that they shared written characters.  His dialect seemed ancient, but refined, and his speech made her feel brutish and clumsy. The merchant was still playing dead when the armored man lightly flaked away his covering. The minstrel had to tell him to open his eyes before his tension dissipated.

Before mid-day they had learned enough common words to supplement the written ones. He scoffed with derision when they told him the monster stories, and he explained and re-stated that he had just saved them from that village of cannibals. For the past months he had kept finding the remains of their nightly sacrifices. He had spent a week interrupting their murderous ritual until last night, when he felt compelled to take stronger actions.

When he asked them what they were doing here, the minstrel deferred to the merchant and his journal. With hesitation, he gave a brief summary of his goal, and with the mention of the island city, the armored man exclaimed with enthusiasm. Much to the merchant’s disappointment, he had not seen the city, but he did share in the desire to find it. When the metal man got a hold of the journal, he began to add bits to a few of the pages, his gauntlets leaving thin traces of ink. The revelation that followed the returning of the journal brought subtle tears to cling to the merchant’s lashes. He was re-marking his maps when a stunning notion hit him. He turned and asked where the armored man came from. The knight told them of Tanchuck’s six cities. He had read about that land, but no stories mentioned men like him. When he pressed again with the same question, the knight became abashed. The merchant pointed to the sky and drew his finger in an arc, at which point the knight solemnly nodded. With great reverence the merchant dipped his head and questioned no more.

The merchant obsessed with his pages. The minstrel played as she pleased. The knight snacked on seeds while switching from audience to performer. Before evening had fallen, the merchant had calculated the direction and let the knight plow the path out of the jungle. Starlight guided them to a shallow stream which flowed away from the heart of the jungle into ever thinning woods. They followed the fresh water and were brought close enough to hear the rabble of a marching army.

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