Chapter II.

24 Jul

With only thirty minutes of daily light from the heliac, the hoop wagon did most of its road travel within narrow limits of time. Most light rays came downward in a narrow radius around the vertical axis. Each day was growing by a minute beyond the length of the one preceding it. The signs of approaching spring grew visible in the valleys the tinker and his passengers passed through. New light and warmth were arriving, welcome and satisfying.

Above the valley lowlands, the mountain heights were blooming with spring growth of grass, bushes, and flowers.

One evening Gev had important news for the other two.

“Tomorrow we arrive in the hamlet of Meridia, just in time for the vernal feria held there every spring on that date. I will have the chance to provide services for many inhabitants and visitors, and the two of you can enjoy the games and entertainment that go on. It will be a happy occasion, I predict.”

The wagon rolled into Meridia in the hour before the heliac appeared above the adjacent mountain. Gev parked his vehicle near the grassy commons where the festival was set to occur that day. Fevered preparations were in progress on all sides, the three could see at once. This was to be a holiday celebration for those who assembled here from the nearby villages.

As soon as breakfast was finished, Yie and Joa began to stroll about the fair grounds, looking at the activities that would before long have to end because of the limited length of the spring day. The foreseeable lack of time appeared to make the Meridians and their guests excitedly active, eager to have their fun before the rays of the heliac disappeared, before dusk fell on the valley and put an end to the activities that needed full daylight.

Young athletes ran in foot races. Swings hanging from tall pine trees provided thrills. A tug-of-war with homemade ropes occurred. Large leather balls were kicked and thrown about. Children indulged in repeated sessions of hide-and-seek. Old men knelled down to play at hazards with wooden dice. A group of locals had set up smoothened lanes for games of tenpins. Women behind long tables sold pastries and sweets made at home. A keg of sour alegar was being tapped, with the ale being poured into large primitive cylixes.

The pair of fugitives moved to the far end of the commons, where whole families of belowers were scattered on wool blankets they had brought with them from their homes. They ate flans and panadas, dipping them in pots of samp, caper sauce, ragout, salmagundi, and allapodrida. Winter pears and biffins appeared to be their favorite desserts. The signs of holiday enjoyments were present everywhere one looked. Faces appeared full of joy.

Spicy odors wafted past Yie and Joa, tempting both of them. Their mouths watered.

Feeling about in his right pocket, the young man took hold of coins that Gev had paid him for helping him in his labors as a tinker.

“Let me buy you some food, Joa,” he proposed. “If you are as hungry as I am, some edibles would be most welcome at the moment.”

But at that second something happened that prevented either one of them partaking of the food at the spring feria.

At least four figures in black, with red birettes on their heads, suddenly appeared at the other end of the commons, where games were still in progress. They looked about in all directions, hunting for something.

These were pursuers from the Zeviv Claustrum, no doubt about that.

Yie realized that fact first, Joa only a moment or so later.

What do we do? was the question striking both their minds at once. The two exchanged looks of worry and alarm.

A possible way of escape occurred to Yie as he heard the music of a gittern playing in a wooded area adjacent to the grassy commons. He pointed in the direction from where the sound came, opposite the end where the Brothers from the heights were searching for the pair they were after.

The two fugitives took lively steps toward the site of the music, passing through a small grove of quercines to get to a grassless open field prepared for dancing. A lively gavoto was in progress, couples circling about in orderly formations to antique tunes whose origins were lost in the forest of times past.

“Let’s join the others,” whispered Yie to his proposed dancing partner. “We can stay here until the feria ends. It will not be too long. Then, we can go back to the wagon of Gev.”

He pointed to the falling heliac in the pale sky above. It was soon going to disappear. Darkness would descend over them and all the others. Night was approaching with its usual speed.

Joa answered him with a nod and the two of them prepared to enter the next round of dance, a simple quadrille with a slow, modest rhythm. These were steps that both of them could perform with sufficient skill.

The music stopped and the dancers dispersed homewards. A rapidly falling dusk announced the end of festivities to all the belowers enjoying themselves.

Their festival was limited by the half hour of direct sunlight from immediately above and the darkening twilight that followed.

Above the fairground, jagged peaks towered about in all directions. The highlands still had heliac light that was to last a considerable amount of time.

Yie continued to hold the hand of his partner. He whispered, his mouth close to her ear.

“We cannot stay here, but have to take a gamble that the Red Hats have left.”

The pair made for the spot where Gev’s hoop wagon was parked.

In a few minutes, they had safely crossed the commons to where their transporter waited impatiently for them. His anger had subsided, turning into burning curiosity over their tardiness in returning.

“Where have you two been? It is too late for us to leave now. Our entire schedule has been disrupted.”

Yie decided that their story had to be told at this juncture. It took him surprisingly little time to narrate the main features of their adventures at the claustrum and their subsequent flight through the valleys.

The adamantean eyes of their protector grew large, then reverted back to normal. He spoke to them in a warm, sympathetic voice.

“I thought there was something like that involved, but I never suspected the seriousness of the matter,” said Gev with evident emotion. “Do not be afraid. I know how to conceal and shield you, and that is what I here and now promise to accomplish. No one shall touch or bother either one of you. I promise to defend you from all enemies. I know how to accomplish that. You shall both be safe with me, I promise.”

He raised his right arm as if taking a vow.

“When will we leave this place?” asked Joa with a shudder. “It is not safe to remain too long. Everyone is headed homeward.”

“I can travel the road at night, in the dark. I will and I must. Our speed will be a slow one, but we will be going away from the adjacent hamlet, in a different direction from the one we had been taking before.”

“A different route?” questioned Yie. “It is not our desire in any way to spoil your regular circuit, Gev. We must not interfere with your plans, not at all.”

The tinker smiled at him with self-confidence.

“I can certainly return to my old itinerary later on. The place we are going to is called Rocumbol Mountain, the ancient center for all Calderi. That is where our iron, copper, and tin is produced in smelter caves.”

“Caves?” said Yie excitedly.

“What better location is there to hide you in?” grinned the wandering craftsman.

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