Chapter Ten – Closest To The Door

“You’re not afraid of vampires, are you, Father?” Nestor’s son, Salah, asked him. Nestor was standing at the kitchen table as he packed his saddlebags for the trip to Bradford’s Mill. Nestor looked fondly at his son. At nine years old, Salah was not as big as Nestor had been at that age, but was much more handsome, and smarter, too, both of which Nestor credited to his wife, Eleni. “Oh, yes,” Nestor said, thinking of the boy, Will Taylor, who had escaped from Watson Farm, “I’m afraid of vampires. They’re filthy, and they smell bad!” Nestor said, holding his nose. Salah sighed and rolled his big, brown eyes, “Father!”

“It’s true!” Nestor went on. “And their clothes!” Nestor’s face was a look of comical disgust. “You never saw anything so dirty,” Nestor shook his head, “Even worse than your leggings!”

“Oh, be serious!” Salah said. “What are you really afraid of, father?” His son persisted, with a piercing look that he also got from his mother.

Nestor knew that Eleni, playing with their small daughter, Cassia, on the rug beside the hearth, was listening closely. Nestor stopped packing and pulled up a chair. “When I was a boy younger than you are, and my service had just started, I was put in a big room to sleep with all the other new boys. My bed was the closest to the courtyard door, and there was a boy named Ali who told me something that made me very afraid.” Salah’s eyes grew wide, and he leaned against the kitchen table. “What did he say?”

“He told me that they put me close to the door because I was the biggest, so when the ghouls came at night, they would eat me first and be so full, they’d leave everyone else alone.”

“That’s not true, is it?” Salah said, and looked over to his mother for her opinion, as well. His mother said, suppressing a smile, “Well, your father is here, isn’t he?”

“No, it wasn’t true,” Nestor said, “But I didn’t know that, and I was terrified that first night. I sat up in my bed, unable to sleep, listening to the fountain bubbling outside and and imagining I heard long  ghoul long nails clicking on the stones in the courtyard and scratching at the door.”

“But nothing happened,” Salah said, just to be sure.

“Well, nothing except that I barely slept that night! The second night, a boy named Mehmed who was sleeping next to me woke up and he saw me sitting there. He asked me what I was doing, and I told him what Ali said about the ghouls. He sighed and said, You are big enough to fight a ghoul already, to cheer me up. But I was still afraid. My father had told everyone I was ten years old so that they would take me, and I was big enough that they believed him, but I was barely seven.” Nestor touched Salah on the forehead, “And I wasn’t as smart as you. So, Mehmed switched places with me and he slept safe and sound there by the courtyard door that night, and the next, until I was not afraid.” Nestor stroked his short beard thoughtfully and nodded. “I learned a valuable lesson from Mehmed.”

“What was it, father?” Salah asked quietly. Eleni waited and even little Cassia seemed to be listening.

“I learned never to trust boys named Ali,” Nestor said, trying to look as serious as Salah.

Eleni laughed, but Salah looked vexed and shook his head. “Mother is right,” Salah said, picking up the small bags of herbs Jess had given to Nestor for making poultices to soothe pain and stop a wound from festering, “You have to joke about everything.”

Eleni winked at Nestor and asked, “Do you want your father to be more serious, like Sayyd Erik?”

“No!” Salah said quickly, “Sayyd Erik never smiles, and they say he has a voice like thunder.”

“They do?” Nestor chuckled, “What else do they say?”

“That he is a great warrior, and that he killed the bear whose hide hangs in the White Hart with his bare hands,” Salah said, excited.

“Hmmm,” Nestor mused. “I have heard the same thing, and I can’t say for sure if it’s true, but Erik is a brave fighter.” Nestor glanced at Eleni and Cassia, then leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I’ve seen him cut the head off a vampire with one stroke, the way you would slice the top off a boiled egg.” Salah smiled.

“Is Sayyd Erik afraid of vampires?”

Nestor sat up in his chair and shrugged. “One of my old teachers said that only a fool, or a man with nothing to lose, is not afraid of anything.” Nestor put one hand on top of Salah’s thick, dark curls. “I hope I’m not the first man, but I know I’m not the second.” He pulled Salah closer and kissed him on the top of his head. “And neither is Erik.” The teacher was Nestor’s sword-master, who also said that Nestor was too big and clumsy to use a blade, and would be better off striking his opponents with a club, Or with a smaller man, if there is no club handy. This reminded Nestor that he still had to go to Inigo the smith before he met Erik and the others at the South gate, to pick up his old war hammer that Inigo had repaired for him.

“Can you help me with my fishing pole before you go, Father?” Salah said with glee, “Inigo made me a special hook, and I’m going to catch that Marid while you’re gone.” Nestor chuckled and looked at his wife, who was shaking her head.

“I wish you had never put that idea in his head!” Eleni sighed. “He thinks he’s going to catch some magical beast that will do his chores for him.” Nestor and Eleni didn’t agree on their gods — she was a polytheist, while Nestor was raised to believe in Allah alone — but they found some common ground in the host of supernatural creatures that inhabit the pagan fringes of all old religions.

“Well, he never will if he doesn’t try!” Nestor reasoned. “And in the meantime,” he winked at Eleni, “he’ll catch you some dinner.”

“But,” Nestor said to his son, “you must promise not to fall in the river while I’m gone,” Nestor said.

Salah laughed, “I’m not afraid of the river, Father,” Salah said resolutely, “I’m a good swimmer.

Nestor picked up his son in both hands and lifted him up, laughing, to the low ceiling of their one-story house, where Salah reached up to touch one of the newer, lighter-colored roof beams Nestor and Erik had put in two years before. Nestor bought this house by the river not long after Eleni told him they would soon be a family of four. The house needed work, but it had an extra room, so that Salah didn’t have to share with Cassia when she was older and not sleeping with her parents. If Nestor and Eleni were blessed enough to have another child, the brothers or sisters could share a room, but it was very rare for any family to have three children, and no one ever had more. Whether you believed the three creators of Midhbar were gods, angels, or wizards, it seemed clear that they did not intend for people to fill this world and subdue it.

Nestor rolled Salah playfully from side to side, like a fish, “I know you’re a good swimmer, but be careful near the river, anyway!”

“I will!” Salah laughed, and Nestor let him drop a few feet before putting him down on the floor again. “I’ll be careful, Father.”

“Then that makes two of us,” Nestor said, and went to kiss Eleni and little Cassia one last time before he left.

~ ~ ~

The expedition to Watson Farm started out late. Some of the men thought they were meeting back at the Hart, so it was almost two bells before everyone was gathered at the South gate, as planned. This was the kind of inexperience and lack of discipline that Erik feared would cause a lot more trouble later. With all seven men accounted for, they rode out of Westering at a trot on their borrowed horses, with provisions courtesy of Cozen’s. Erik had to admit Solomon hadn’t skimped on the supplies — there was more than enough nuts, honey, smoked meat and dried fruit to last seven men two or three days.

Erik rode in front, with Nestor just behind and to his right. As the group cleared the gate, Erik urged his grey gelding, Hardy, to a canter and soon the men had covered the quarter-mile of the South gate road and turned left and east onto the King’s Road. Erik held the pace for another mile through the rolling green meadows that surrounded Westering, then slowed to a trot as the road led into the green tunnel of Hudson’s Forest.

As the men passed into the shade of the trees, the younger men in the group were in high spirits, talking, laughing and eating roasted almonds. Nestor brought his big brown mare up beside Erik, who shook his head. “You’d think we were going on a picnic.”

Nestor smiled. “Don’t be too hard on them, Erik,” he said, “They don’t remind you of yourself when you were that age?”

Erik scoffed. “It’s been so long since I was their age that I have trouble remembering,” he said, then paused as if reminiscing, “But no — they don’t.” Erik looked at Nestor, “And you had already been in service to the Pasha for what, ten years?”

Nestor lifted his eyes to the intertwining branches above them and nodded. “Yes, but I had no choice in the matter, so I can hardly begrudge them.”

“Still, I’m glad we have you,” Erik said, looking straight at the dirt road ahead.

“We have Inigo and Isaac,” Nestor said, “They’re good men, as well.” The two older men were bringing up the rear. Isaac agreed with Erik that someone needed to keep an eye on the young men to make sure they didn’t stray, or fall off their horses, as only one of the three was an experienced rider. “They are good men, but Inigo has a bad knee and all Isaac’s years in the Rangers were peacetime. Both of them together don’t have half your fighting experience.”

“I’ll be honest, my friend,” Nestor said, “I hoped never to use that experience again.”

“I know,” Erik said, still looking straight ahead as they neared the intersection with the King’s Road, “That’s why I’m grateful to have you here.”

“Very persuasive, Sayyd Magnusson,” Nestor said, “But I’m not letting you use Khawlah,” Nestor said, tapping the head of his war hammer.

Erik looked at the heavy double-sided iron head of the hammer at the end of a four-foot length of hornbeam. “I’d get winded carrying that thing around, much less swinging it.”

Nestor let out his easy, pleasant laugh. “I doubt that.” He looked at Black Molly’s plain scabbard. “Though I see you’ve decided not tire out your arm with a real sword,” he prodded.

Erik smiled. “Well, they don’t call it Watson Great Barn for nothing, but we may get in some close quarters. Despite what we’ve seen in Westering, vampires avoid fighting in the open whenever possible. That barn will be dark inside, and it’s full of hidey-holes that are good for ambush.”

“Perfect for them,” Nestor said, “Not so good for us,” he said, and Erik knew Nestor meant big men who needed room to move. “Exactly. But this one,” Erik put his hand on Black Molly’s hilt, “Has served me well in lot of close fights.”

“You know your business,” Nestor nodded, “Not even Solomon questioned who would lead this picnic.” Erik nodded. Solomon was careful to pick his battles, too.

“Speaking of the barn, Collie brought me some good information before we left.” Nestor raised an eyebrow, but didn’t need to ask how Collie obtained this information. Not long after he first met Collum dan Art more than ten years before, Nestor had suspected there was something unusual about the small man besides his stature. When Nestor noticed that Collie’s eyes changed color subtly depending on his surroundings, and that sometimes his pipe smoke formed the shapes of birds, Nestor decided Collie was a djinn. Nestor had never seen Collie change his form, but all the guards of the Watch had seen the small dragon, or the wolf, or the bear that had suddenly appeared to wreak havoc among the vampires who attacked Westering early in the spring. Vampire attacks became much less frequent after Harry’s invention, dubbed the “Midnight Sun,” turned a half-dozen or so of the undead to ashes. None of the animals had been seen since, either. Everyone in Westering knew Collie, and almost everyone liked him, despite their suspicions about his true nature. Theories about him ran from wizard, or failed wizard’s apprentice, to changeling or shapeshifter, though Nestor wasn’t clear on the difference between the last two. There were a few who distrusted Collie as a result, but he had never given anyone cause to complain in the decade he had lived among them. Ralph was fond of saying, They may not like him, but they still drink his cider. Westerings were, above all, practical people.

“I’m glad to hear he returned safely,” Nestor said simply.

“Collie knows his business, too,” Erik went on. “He searched the whole barn, and he counted at least a dozen vampires,” Nestor shifted in his saddle and waited. “They were sleeping in a big pile, so he couldn’t get an exact count, but they’re all holed up in the middle of the barn in one big room. Except for  couple of the bigger ones that were wandering about, apparently acting as sentries, which is another new behavior.”

“I wish we knew why this change,” Nestor said, sticking one thumb in his broad leather belt.

“So do I,” Erik said. “The bad news is one thing hasn’t changed. They’re saving some for later — three women and two children locked in a tack room.” Nestor looked grim. “Collie didn’t want to leave them, but there was no way to get everyone out at once, safely. He didn’t dare risk it,” Erik looked at Nestor to make sure he was understood, “but we might have to.”

“Another thing,” Erik went on, “Collie checked the springhouse, they call it, which is a separate building on the source of the sacred springs. He said there were two vampires there, guarding something they put in the water. Collie couldn’t get a good look at it, or tell what it was doing.”

“Nothing good,” Nestor said simply, and Erik nodded. They rode on in silence for a moment, listening to Reginald, Henrik, and Toby debate which was the more attractive of the twins they had seen at the market on the green. Nestor rubbed his bald head and exchanged an amused look with Erik.

“So, we take the springhouse first?” Nestor said.

“That was my intention,” Erik said. As they rode on at a trot through the quiet woods, Erik told Nestor his plan for freeing the hostages and taking back the barn. “Think it over and let me know if I’ve missed anything,” he told Nestor when he was done, “I wasn’t planning a rescue mission when I got up this morning.” With that, Erik urged Hardy into a fast canter again and the rest followed. Soon the woods echoed with the sound of hoofbeats and the rattle of gear, leaving each man to his own thoughts.

~ ~ ~

Edward and Amelia stood outside the White Hart in the shade of the big live oak. When Erik came out with his bags, the Lockhearts were behind the bar with Torvald, but they went out so that father and son could talk. When Erik came out and put his saddlebags on the horse Cozen’s had sent over, Edward and Amelia went over to tell him goodbye. Not surprisingly, Erik didn’t give them bearhugs, or even say farewell, but they were surprised when he turned to them before he mounted his horse and said, You’re welcome to stay here and help Torvald stay out of trouble.

Now, the Lockhearts heard a bell tolling twice, somewhere back toward the South gate. Edward wondered where the bell tower was located; he didn’t recall seeing a church. Still, his first impression of Westering as a walled town from the late Middle Ages was a useful frame of reference. From what Edward had seen so far, Midhbar was not that different from Warriors of Shadowfell and other fantasy series where quasi-medieval societies are threatened by monsters, undead creatures, and battles between good and evil wizards. The obvious difference being that Midhbar was real, with very real things to chase you through the woods, steal your pocket watch, and suck your blood. Plenty of villains, but no major antagonist, so far. No princesses, either, or damsels in distress, If you don’t count Amelia, Edward thought with a smile. And I guess that makes Erik the hero, Edward thought. He is the one riding off to fight the vampires, after all.

“I can’t believe it’s just now afternoon,” Amelia said, yawning as she looked up at the sky where some clouds were creeping in from the west, “It’s been a long day already.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Edward said, looking toward the green and the market that was still going on there. Amelia followed his gaze. “Want to check out the market?”

Edward shrugged. “Sure, I guess.” From here it looked like Kirksville street fair, minus the port-a-johns, but he was restless, so they started walking. “I’d really like to go to Cozen’s after,” Edward offered, glancing over at Amelia, “I’m dying to check out some maps of this place.”

“Maps are fine, “Amelia answered, “But you know Giles and his dad are going to be there, giving us the hard sell.”

“I expect so,” Edward said, “But we do need to talk to other people if we’re going to figure out how to get home.” Edward thought about what Solomon said upstairs, in the Hart. “And Solomon did say we had a part in whatever big changes are coming.”

“If Giles is anything like his father, that’s probably just a line to get us in there,” Amelia said, frowning. “Who knows what they really want?”

Edward nodded, ”True, we have to be careful. But it does sound like there are things going on that are out of the ordinary, even for the Wilderlands.”

“With the vampires attacking the town and all?” Amelia said.

“And that raven-thing,” Edward added with a little snicker, knowing how much it freaked out his sister. “Don’t forget about that.”

Amelia hunched her shoulders and shook her arms. “I wish I could.”

Edward looked down at the thick, ankle-high grass of the green as they walked, and he wondered how they kept it cut. “Anyway, the point is, Solomon was telling at least part of the truth, and we need to find out if he really knows anything that might be helpful.”

“You’re right,” Amelia paused, “It’s just that Giles is such a jerk, and so creepy. He winked at me twice, can you believe that?”

“He did? I didn’t see that,” Edward admitted.

Big surprise, Amelia thought. Edward was more likely to notice an out-of-print novel on a long bookshelf than one of his friends waving to him from across the street.

“Then you should’ve let your boyfriend hang Giles up in the tree,” Edward said matter-of-factly.

Amelia glared at him. “Don’t start that again, Edward!”

Edward put up both hands and took a step to the side, in case Amelia tried to take a swipe at him. “”OK, OK!” He took another two steps before adding, “I’m just saying…”

Amelia stopped this time and turned to face her brother. “Edward!”

Edward moved a safe distance away, but said, “All right, I’ll shut up about it, but first I do want to say,” Amelia’s glare narrowed to a dangerous squint. “I just want to say that I like Torvald, that’s all! He seems like a pretty good guy. Bit of a temper, like his dad, but I say that as someone he chose not to drag across the bar.”

Amelia’s look softened, and she started to walk again, “OK, well, you’re entitled to that observation.” Amelia started to laugh and Edward started to laugh along with her, before he was even sure why.

“God, Edward, can you imagine what Mom would say if she knew we’d been hanging out in a bar all morning, and then there was an actual bar fight?”

“Hey, it’s a tavern,” Edward corrected her, with mock sincerity.

“Yeah, that would set her mind at ease,” Amelia giggled.

“She would like the hedgehog, though,” Edward pointed out.

A look of wonder came over Amelia’s face, “Oh, she would! I’m so glad they have some cute things here –”

“Like Torvald?” Edward interjected and then skipped sideways, because Amelia did take a swipe at him this time.

“Shut up!” she said, laughing, “And not just vampires and mutants.”

“And Giles,” Edward added. Amelia cracked up again, then her laughter died away quickly.

“You’re right, Edward,” she said. “We have to talk to the Cozens. Even if they are both creeps, they might know something that will help us get back home.”

“I can go to Cozen’s by myself,” Edward offered.

“No way,” Amelia said as they reached the first vendor, a man and woman selling wooden dolls and small carvings of animals. “I’m going with you, and I’m getting some of those candied hazelnuts.”

~ ~ ~

“How many bodies have you found?” Erik said to the two men with pikes in front of him.

Tom, the older of the two men from Bradford’s Mill, looked at the younger, Silas, for confirmation. “Six, by my count.” Tom nodded. “Those are just the ones we found along the road between here and the bridge,” he said. “There may be more in the woods, or in the river,” he shook his head, “We might never find them all.”

“And with folks leaving for Poplar Camp as soon as it was light this morning, it’s hard to know who left and who’s actually missing.” Silas said. Nestor sat beside Erik, who could hear the horses snorting and shuffling behind him, but the other men were listening quietly. It didn’t seem like a picnic outing any more. The four hours of riding from Westering were uneventful, and the high spirits became boredom and soreness from more than twenty miles of unaccustomed riding. Everything on the King’s Road looked completely normal until they reached the outskirts of Bradford’s Mill, where they met Tom and Silas loading a body into a mule-drawn wagon. Both of them were armed with long, metal-tipped pikes, which Erik judged hadn’t been used in years, but looked sturdy enough.

“Has anyone been to Watson Farm?” Nestor asked. Silas looked sheepish. He glanced at Tom, who looked angry, as if for permission to speak. “We rode within sight of the Great Barn.”

“What did you see?” Erik prompted. “It was quiet,” Silas said, shifting his feet on the buckboard of the open wagon. “No smoke from the chimneys. No one around. There were some cows and goats loose, roaming around the yard. There was a body by the road to the barn, and we picked it up as quick as we could and left. We didn’t see anyone alive.”

“And the body — vampires?” Silas didn’t answer or look up at Erik, but he nodded.

Tom looked at the seven Westerings on horseback with their weapons and gear. He had a sour look on his weathered face. “So you thought you’d ride in and save the day, eh?” he scoffed, shifting his pike. “Well, you’re late. Nobody left to rescue now — where were you yesterday?”

Erik took a deep breath. He never had much patience for diplomacy, whether it was negotiating with a local official’s ego or placating the olive farmer whose orchard had just been turned into a battlefield. As a captain in the King’s Rangers, Erik had relied on Lieutenant Hoffman to pay the bribes and smooth over the hurt feelings, but that was a hundred years ago, and Hoffman was long dead.

To Erik’s relief, Nestor replied first. “We came as soon as we heard. Westering is half a day’s ride, and we wouldn’t have made it here before nightfall, except for a fast horse and Will Taylor.”

Silas’ face lit up, “Will Taylor’s alive?”

Nestor nodded, “He was wounded escaping from the barn, but he’ll be all right.”

“Thank the Lords for that!” Silas said with great relief. “He’s my wife’s second cousin, and he’s a good boy.”

“And a brave one,” Nestor added. Even Tom didn’t have anything to say against this news.

“A fast horse, you say?” Tom grumbled. “You mean Squire Watson’s Fuego?”

“The same,” Nestor said.

“He’s the fastest horse in the county,” Silas said, “Poplar Camp’s closer, but I’d bet Fuego still got to Westering before Joseph reached Poplar Camp on his old nag.”

“If he got there at all,” Tom said dourly. “Other things in the woods beside vampires, these days.”

Henrik, one of the three young men, piped up from behind Nestor. “What things?” Erik was glad he and the other young men had kept their mouths shut until now, but he had been about to ask the same question, so he tried not to be annoyed. “You mean bandits, highwaymen?”

“Bandits, highwaymen, gypsies,” Tom said. “Wat Green said he saw a pack of dwarves on the King’s Road last week.”

“So?” Silas replied, “Even if Wat did see some dwarves, and I’m not saying he did, it don’t mean they’re up to no good.”

“My grandfather always said, If you see a dwarf above ground, you can be sure it’s bad news.”  Erik wondered if it were even worth contradicting Tom. Dwarves kept to themselves, they didn’t trust outsiders and they put a price on everything. They had famously bad tempers to go with their long lives, hence sayings like, Longer than a dwarf holds a grudge, but despite the fact there were a few who wanted Erik dead, dwarves were not generally a threat to the other peoples of Midhbar.

“They’re not moles, Tom, they can come up when they like!” Silas said, trying not to laugh, “Besides, the king’s royal armorers were dwarves.”

“Aye, and there’s no king anymore, and that’s the problem!” Tom looked toward Watson Farm, “That’s why we got all this trouble, and unnatural things stirring about. It won’t get better til there’s a king on the throne in Almaren.” It was a familiar argument all over Berila, and nobody spoke against it now, though Erik knew better than all of them that people had been saying it for the past one hundred years. Several great families were ruined in the the Wizard Wars, and death of the king was one of the events that helped to finally end the conflict. The crown prince oversaw the signing of the peace accords his father helped write and then disappeared before his coronation. To this day, reports came from all corners of Berila that the prince had been sighted. He’d be one hundred and fifteen years old now, but being of the Blood, he could certainly still be alive.

“Well, the point is,” Silas said, looking at the Westerings, “That you’re the first help we’ve had, and we appreciate it,” he said, with emphasis on the last three words.

“And what do you plan to do now, exactly?” Tom said, still skeptical. “Just walk into the Great Barn and herd the vampires out into the sun?”

Erik had no intention of explaining his plan to Tom, or spending any more valuable time here. “That sounds like a good idea. We’d better go before night finds us still here,” he said, curtly, “talking.” Tom’s jaw went slack, and as Erik started to turn his horse toward the dirt road to Watson Farm, Silas stood up in the wagon. “Sir! I’d like to help!”

“Where do you think you’re going?” Tom snapped as Silas jumped down from the wagon. “You don’t need me to drive the wagon back to town, Tom.”

Erik had been relieved when he heard no one had come from Poplar Camp yet; he didn’t want to be responsible for getting anyone else hurt or killed if things went wrong. Erik paused, and his group stopped with him. “Do you know your way around Watson Farm?”

“Yes, sir, I worked there until last year, when I married the miller’s daughter and went to work for her father.”

“Married, then,” Erik said. “Children?”

Silas grinned and looked embarrassed, “Not yet, but soon, Lords willing.” Erik almost smiled at Silas’ naivete, as though Erik were just making conversation. Of the four older Westering men, all were married, except Inigo, but only Nestor had children still at home. Of the young men, only Toby was married, but he had no young ones. “We could use a guide, but that’s all. You can bring that pike in case we need a fishing pole.”

Tom scowled, “You’ll get yourself killed, Silas!” No one answered him, and Isaac helped Silas onto the back of his horse. “All we have to do is wait — the vampires will clear out once the food is gone!”

The food, Erik thought grimly. Tom meant the cows and goats. He didn’t realize there were five people alive in the barn. He didn’t know the vampires were mucking about with the springs, either.

Henrik turned in his saddle, “And when the food at the farm is gone, what if they come to Bradford’s Mill?”

“The town? They wouldn’t –” Tom faltered.

Erik turned his horse to face Tom as he stood in the wagon, red-faced. “Tell me, Tom, would you have thought yesterday that vampires would overrun Watson Farm? This isn’t some lonely goat herder’s shack up in the hill country.”

Tom looked around, as if hoping to see a sane person. “Well, then, why don’t you just wait for more help? There’s bound to be men coming from Poplar Camp!” Tom shouted as Erik turned back toward the farm road.

“It’s not that simple, Tom!” Erik said, and urged his grey mare forward. “It never is,” he said, only loud enough for Nestor to hear.

~ ~ ~

Edward and Amelia spent almost an hour at the market, looking at more than a dozen small tables and tents. Edward spent ten minutes at the first table, where a couple was selling their wares. The wife was a potter, and made containers in the shapes of animals and vegetables. The husband carved small toys from different kinds and colors of wood, some painted. When Edward noticed that some of the menagerie were fantasy creatures like griffins, dragons and unicorns, he started asking the carver which, if any, of these animals existed in Midhbar, and had he seen them himself? The husband was very good-natured, even when Edward, who had picked out several small carvings, realized he couldn’t pay for them, even if he had the wallet from his backpack. Amelia smiled and apologized, “We’ll be back!” she called as she dragged Edward away under protest.

Edward and Amelia had both noticed the money changing hands at the White Hart. Edward asked Torvald if he could look at some of the large gold and silver coins. Torvald explained that most of the coins depicted various kings of Berila, and the lion and shield on the opposite side were the symbols of the kingdom. Then, Erik had come out to leave for Watson Farm, and the Lockhearts went outside.

Now, as Edward and Amelia walked through the market and looked with no possibility of buying anything, their financial situation became a lot more relevant. The hard-saved fourteen dollars and change they had between them was worthless here. “Em,” Edward said, pulling at his bottom lip, “We’re going to have to get jobs.”

Amelia shook her head emphatically. “We won’t be here long enough to need jobs!” she said. Then, realizing they weren’t one step closer to home, “What would we do, anyway?”

“I’m sure Erik would be glad to let us work for our room and board,” Edward said, looking around on the off chance that there were maps of any kind, even though he couldn’t buy one. “I mean, I don’t think we need to look for a career, but we’re going to need pocket money for things like this.” He thought for a moment. “And we may need money for traveling.”

Amelia frowned. “I guess so. Just in case Solomon doesn’t have all the answers.”

Edward couldn’t quite hide a smirk. “If you’re nice to Giles, we can probably score some free gear!”

Amelia gave her brother a venomous look. “Don’t. Even. Start.” Edward made the zipping motion across his mouth.

“I have to give Erik credit,” Amelia said, “he hasn’t even mentioned paying for anything we’ve eaten, and he practically invited us stay at the Hart, at least for now. And before you say it, yes, I’m sure we’d be welcome at Cozen’s.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything!” Edward followed Amelia to a few more stalls selling glassware, brooms, socks, and fireplace pokers. The Lockhearts’ unusual clothing didn’t stand out among the brightly colored outfits of the market sellers, several of whom wore large turbans and long, flowing robes. Edward stopped at a gap in the tents and looked north. “What is it?” Amelia said.

“I was just thinking, if we had to find jobs, how cool it would be if Herodotus took me on as his apprentice,” he said dreamily. Amelia realized Edward was looking at the top of the wizard’s tower, just visible in the distance. “I would do anything — dust bookshelves, sweep the floors, clean up owl poop…”

Amelia wrinkled her nose, “Gross!”

“I bet Giles never offered to do that,” Edward said. “And apparently he isn’t training Giles, anyway, so surely he needs an apprentice.”

“Yeah, I wonder why he isn’t teaching Giles magic,” Amelia said.

Edward turned to look at his sister, “I’d sure like to know, but he seemed pretty sensitive about it.”

“We should ask Torvald,” Amelia said as they came to the other side of the stalls. “I think that’s the river over there. Let’s have a look.” Through a break in the row of small houses ahead, a stone bridge twenty yards long connected the western side of town with the east. The other side of town had fewer houses, and more orchards.

As Edward and Amelia reached the bridge, they looked down at the rocky, gently sloping sides of the river twelve feet below. There were a few small piers and a dock where several rowboats and a flat-bottomed barge were tied up on the opposite side.

“I’m surprised there aren’t any mosquitoes,” Edward said as he and Amelia looked down at the swirling water.

“Come to think of it,”Amelia said, “I haven’t been bitten by a bug since we got here. Even while we were in the woods.”

“Me, either,” Edward said. “Remember how freaked out Mom used to get when we’d go on camping trips with Grandpa, and how she made us promise to check for ticks before we went to bed?”

“Yes, she made us promise to check each other, remember?” Edward and Amelia laughed. If they were back in their attic apartment now, they would have finished off leftover spaghetti for lunch and be getting ready to go down to the library to find a movie. Saturday was family night; Edward, Amelia and Lucy had continued John’s tradition of ordering pizza, then making popcorn and watching a bad movie. Amelia couldn’t stop to think about their larger predicament too much, or what Lucy must be going through, or she would fall apart again, the way she had earlier when they reached the South gate. and she could process the danger they had been in from Laughing Jack. Amelia wondered what Edward was feeling. Her brother had his own breakdown after the pocketwatch was stolen, and he hadn’t seemed himself when they met the Council in the White Hart and he had blurted out they were from Earth. Now, however, talking about wizards and magic, he seemed completely in his element, s if he were on the best field trip ever. Well, they would both deal with their new situation in their own time, and in their own way. bove all, Amelia was glad she and Edward had each other.

“So, no mosquitoes or ticks, despite that they obviously aren’t spraying for bugs,” Amelia said. “Maybe they use magic?”

“It’s possible,” Edward said, intrigued at this idea.

“Another thing I haven’t seen is anyone sick, or diseased. I haven’t even seen a rotten tooth.” Amelia looked at Edward. “With no antibiotics, vaccinations, or fluoride toothpaste?”

Edward thought for a moment, “I guess you’re right. If you don’t count vampire wounds, and poor Peg’s son, Danny,” Edward said with a troubled look, “then everyone and everything else in Westering seems pretty healthy.”

“Of course, we’ve only been in town a few hours,” Amelia said, “Maybe they keep all the sick, toothless people over there,” she said, pointing across the river. As she did, a group of boys punting a small boat downriver waved back at her.

“Or maybe not,” Edward said, and turned right to look downriver at the south part of town. Amelia knew what he was thinking.

“I guess this is as good a time as any to go to Cozen’s,” Amelia said with a sigh. “Let’s get it over with before Torvald starts wondering if we got lost.


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