Well, my Muse returned for a short stay, at least long enough to continue this story I began last year. Iím sorry for the delay! Send electric prods to my Muse at:

SDerkins61@yahoo.com

 

 

They followed Hanpaís footprints to the edge of a cliff. Without looking, the older Trader knew that this very spot overlooked the distant village. The freshly broken rocks and soil told him that the edge must have crumbled below the Master Traderís weight. How could his old friend be so careless?

"Hanpa!" he shouted as he cautiously peered down. Trees and brush grew from the side of the cliff that led to the rocky shore below. Fearing his friend had fallen to his death Thrana scanned the ocean waves for signs of his body. He was only dimly aware of Jopa leaning next to him.

"There! In the tree below, Master!" Thrana followed the apprenticeís pointing finger and spotted what the young man had seen. A glimmer of red was shown between two giant limbs. Ganthrenís Grace must have caught Hanpa. But how did they bring him to safety? Thinking furiously for several heartbeats he concluded that the only possibility was to send one of the youngsters down on a rope. Parren was the best choice, being the lightest. He ordered them to tie every rope together; hoping it would be long enough. He took one end and tied it to a nearby tree for support.

"Parren, I want you to tie this end around you. Jopa and I will lower you down to Hanpa. Please be careful. Think about each step, do not lose focus." The Master Trader didnít need to say aloud that any misstep could be the last one she made on the treacherous precipice. Even with the thin rope bound to her, it wouldnít save her life. It would merely snap from the weight. Parren did as she was instructed as the two men took hold of the fiber cord. She nodded to their master and stepped to the crumbling edge.

The first step was the most frightening but her faith in her companions and fear for Hanpa prevented her from faltering. Heights didnít intimidate her, not after growing up in a village carved into solid stone hundreds of feet above the valley floor. It was the fear of dying and not having her body brought home to her family that caused her unease. The ocean would greedily keep her remains for all eternity if she fell.

Inch by painful inch, she was lowered along the rocky incline. Parren kept her eyes on her path, sidestepping around possible jutting stones that could cut her rope or brush that could snag her. Sweat poured out as her body trembled with the effort. She needed to stop and catch her breath. No doubt the men needed to pause as well. She spotted a small ledge to her right and worked her way towards it. Testing its stability, she allowed her weight to rest on it.

Parren shouted for them to stop for a moment. She felt the tension on the rope ease and could almost hear their labored breathing from above. She hugged the stones in front of her, grateful for the coolness. When her heart rate slowed the Emissary dared a slight twist of her body to look towards Hanpa. He hadnít moved an inch. He was either dead or severely injured. Unable to remain still any longer, Parren shouted to the men above, asking if they were prepared to continue. Feeling the rope tighten once again, she left her small haven and stepped down.

Within moments, she reached a large limb of the tree that held Hanpa. Unable to see how to reach him while still attached to the rope, she untied herself from it. Parren could almost hear the startled response of the men but ignored it. She needed to reach her mentor. She crawled towards him, praying to the Gods that the branches held. One limb swayed as she put her weight on it but she heard no threatening crack. She kneeled on it until she could grasp the gnarled branch. Parren was just a few steps away from the older man. She lowered herself to the larger limb and gingerly sidestepped closer.

She now had a clear view of his prone body, wedged between two limbs in a fetal position.

"Master!" the Emissary cried out. Her fingers sought his pulse under his jaw. She gave silent thanks when she found it, strong and steady. His eyes fluttered open.

"Parren?" he whispered.

"Yes Hanpa. We need to get you out of this tree. Can you move at all?"

The Trader looked confused momentarily then shifted unsuccessfully. Parren was relieved that his legs and arms still worked. He could have easily broken his back in the fall. She reached down to him and grasped his hand. Her placement on the branch was awkward and afforded her little leverage. Parren slid one foot down the branch until she could brace herself better. Grabbing a stout limb she pulled his hand. Hanpa gasped in pain but she refused to stop. The Trader gritted his teeth and forced his free hand beneath him, pushing upward. His pack snagged for a moment then sprang free. He released her hand and rolled to his stomach, draped over the limb that had caught him.

"Thank you ancient one, for stopping my fall," he grunted to the tree. Parren chuckled.

 

Once Thrana was sure both were safe he made a decision. He would travel to the next village and fetch several men and better ropes. Parren was sure that Hanpa had cracked several ribs. Someone had to guide the older man along the path up the cliff.

"Jopa, build a stretcher while I am gone. I wonít allow that old fool to walk to the village on his own feet, even if I have to tie him to it," he growled. The young man resisted the urge to laugh. He knew well the bond of friendship between the older men. Thrana took only his water skin, not wanting to be slowed down by his heavy pack. Promising to return as quickly as possible the Trader jogged down the path towards the Shalopa village.

Jopa watched the sun and worried that his Master might not return early enough to bring Hanpa up the steep cliff. His friend and Hanpa were safe for now but a night in the tree would be dangerous. They would be exhausted by morning after a night of clinging to the tree. Jopa sent prayers to the Gods and gathered firewood just in case.

To his relief, he spotted the Shalopas and Thrana returning a short time later. They still had several hours of daylight left. He had brought two handfuls of men with him, along with ropes and woven netting. He learned that this was not their first experience with someone who had fallen off a ledge.

The Shalopas quickly assembled and set up their ropes for the rescue. The two lightest men lowered themselves skillfully, leaving the mountain dwellers opened-mouthed in awe at their courage. With easy grace they reached the ancient tree below. They gently wrapped Hanpa into the strong net they had carried. Parren fussed a bit when they told her to let them raise him. She had wanted to be the one who guided her mentor to safety but common sense prevailed. They knew what they were doing and she had to trust the strangers.

Once the Trader was safely to the top they pulled her up next. She arrived at the top to hear her mentor complaining loudly that he was quite capable of walking, thank you very much. A lopsided grin curved her full lips at his stubbornness. If he could protest this strongly then he couldnít be that badly injured. Hanpa would recover quickly.

Thranaís temper got to him. "Old man, shut up and allow them to take you to the village. Weíre wasting daylight," He glared at his fellow Trader. "Unless youíd rather spend the night on this cliff rather than seeÖfriends tonight," he grinned. He knew Hanpa was eager to see Kalen and he wasnít above a little manipulation to make his old friend behave. He watched Hanpa deflate like a poked griddle bread and nod. He climbed onto the stretcher without further protests.

Parren sidled up to Thrana and leaned close. "Who is this person he is eager to see?" she whispered.

"Oh, just someone Hanpa knows," the Trader answered with a bored tone, then winking saucily. Parren grinned back.

"Think I should introduce myself to her?" she teased.

"Well, only if you want that old man to take a switch to your behind. I just hope she hasnít taken a mate. He has hopes you see. She threatened to take another offer if Hanpa wasnít going to make up his mind. He asked her to wait until this visit before acting but she didnít answer him. Just grunted and walked away."

"I hope she waited Master."

"If she didnít it was his own fault. She has waited many years already and may have lost patience." Thrana turned his gaze forward letting Parren know the subject was now closed. The Emissary wondered if she would ever meet someone that would need her in that way.

 

The Shalopas waited at the edge of their village eagerly for their return. Now curious of who the mystery woman was Parren watched they faces of every woman for a clue. One pretty woman caught her eye. She looked worried rather than cheerful like the others. Her arms were folded around herself as she watched the rescuers return. Some years younger than Hanpa but not so young that she couldnít yet bear children. She was attractive and had a regal bearing. Yes, she could imagine her master being caught in her allure. Parren wondered what her name was. She didnít need to wait long for her answer.

The woman rushed forward to Hanpaís side. The older man smiled and took hold of her hand.

"Kalen," he said reverently. Neither spoke. She merely kept hold of his hand as the men continued on to the healerís hut. Thrana and the two apprentices turned to the crowd and smiled their thanks for their help and caring. They were led to an area set aside for a communal gathering. Parren thanked the women who handed her bowls of food and drink. One young man sent her a flirtatious smile but she merely nodded. He couldnít be very bright if he thought one of two spirits would be interested in him.

The young man approached her but the village leader, a woman with white hair sent him a glare. He looked at Parren and the leader in confusion then backed away.

The leader sat next to her. "He is harmless but Iím sure you didnít want to deal with him after your long ordeal. I am Tapak."

"Parren, Emissary and Apprentice Trader. I am pleased to meet you."

They chatted about many things including the route they would be traveling during the season.

"Iíd caution you about visiting the Pi-Setis Emissary. They are not a friendly people, wary of strangers."

"You know of them then?"

"Yes. I have a cousin who married into their people. Even after these many years she is still treated like an outsider. My nephew traveled to visit her last season. He found the Pi-Seti confusing."

"Could you give me any advice on how to deal with them, Tapak? Our people would like to trade for their metal and the knowledge to forge it."

"Then you go there to seek failure young Emissary. Only a handful know the secrets and arenít willing to share knowledge. They would rather die. They know once it became common knowledge that the power and wealth would end."

"Then tell me of what you do understand of them. Perhaps that would help me," Parren asked.

The woman blew out her breath and looked to the sunset, gathering her thoughts.

"Well, the Pi-Seti are very ritualistic. How they greet one another, how food is served and so on. For example; when they meet one another the inferior or lowest ranking person canít speak first. They must be acknowledged by the other or they canít speak to them unless to deliver a message. Then the lower ranked person must beg their forgiveness first, speak briefly then walk away."

"How is rank determined, Tapak?"

"By birth. They tattoo their cheeks. Even I have little clue on their markings. My cousin said it is by color and numbers. The ruling family members use blue marks; nobles bear orange. Commoners use black and slaves, of course, have no tattoos. As outsiders you will have a difficult time of it young Parren. They view you less than slaves, even if your wealth is immense. Traders are just an unpleasantness they must deal with."

Parren sighed. This was going to be difficult indeed. She feared her first experience, as an Emissary would end in failure.

 

They left the area of the Shalopas a few days later and headed North even though Parren had repeated Tapakís warnings. They had agreed to attempt the trade and couldnít give up without trying. Hanpa shrugged. It mattered little to him. This would be his last journey. He would return to Kalen on the way home. She had agreed to take him as a mate and live with the mountain dwellers.

It took several weeks to reach the border of the Pi-Seti since they stopped occasionally to trade with small groups along the way. Most of them advised them not to bother although none gave warnings of danger. Jopa asked why there little danger from the forgers and the man laughed.

"If they killed an outsider then the body would have to be touched for burial young Trader. Not even a slave would be willing to do so. Your body would scar their soul, so they believe. They would be cursed. So, either be condemned in the afterlife or leave the body to rot and stink up the place. No, they donít kill people. They just treat you like dirt and hope youíll go away as soon as possible."

Thrana shook his head in disbelief. The Pi-Setis were a strange people.

They reached the settlement, named Acha, early in the morning. They looked around in wonder at the size of the community. There had to be thousands living in the area! At a loss for where to begin the Traders watched the bustle of the people. Jopa noticed many were heading in one direction. He suggested following them. The other men agreed and strolled along with the flow of people. Several minutes later they entered a large open area surrounded by buildings, carts, and venders. Spotting the Trader markings of the Hannock at one cart they approached him.

"Greetings Master Trader. Do you have a moment to speak with us?" Thrana asked politely.

The man smiled. "Of course. You are Sinagua. I havenít traveled your way although my father often did. How may I be of assistance?"

Thrana explained the purpose of their journey. The Trader shook his head sadly.

"It would do you little good. Why donít you examine the goods found here and take advantage of the variety instead? You could still leave with a few small treasures to go home with," the man suggested.

Parren leaned closer to the man, making him look at her closely. He realized she was female.

"Young lady, I suggest you put on some sort of covering over your chest. The Pi-Seti are quite prudish and would be shocked at your nakedness."

"Oh?" Parren thought for a moment. "Well, we have nothing to lose and perhaps a good shock would leave them more open to dialogue," she grinned.

"More likely you will be banished from the city!" he warned. He could see the naughty sparkle in her eyes. He sighed heavily. "Well, if you must be a rebel I suggest to do as I said before. Do some trading first. Then if you are shoved out the gates youíll at least have something for your trouble."

Hanpa asked whom to speak to first in their quest. The Hannock gave directions to the home of the noble who owned the forges. His name was Ramor. They thanked him once again. They glanced at the wares as they headed for Ramorís home but saw little they wanted. Parren noted several people pointing at her and whispering. She hoped they reached the nobleís home before they were tossed out the gates.

They found the stone pathway that led the way up a slight incline. His residence would be just over the hill. They reached an entry door but it was closed, unlike their own homes, which were only closed after dark. Jopa suggested tapping the door. Parren, as the Emissary tapped loudly with a fingertip. The door opened and a woman without a tattoo opened it. She had to be a servant. Parren felt she would act as though she herself had a marking and spoke first.

"I wish to speak with Ramor, if he is available," she stated politely. The woman looked flustered at her request, her eyes darting between the men and the half-clad woman. The Traders stood patiently until the servant woman made a decision. She stepped back and requested they wait just inside of the doorway. She hurried away. Their wait was not long, however a young woman, not Ramor approached them.

She was almost as tall as Parren, her walk confidant and clipped. She didnít appear pleased at their presence. She wore a flowing gown of pure white fibers and what must be thin strips of the metal forged in Acha. Her long hair was loosely braided and tied with ribbons. Parren noted her dark hair gleamed with highlights and her skin was as flawless as a cloudless sky. The Emissary felt her stomach tighten with pleasure at the womanís form, both soft and strong. The woman almost sizzled the very air around her. Here was a woman that would add spice to anyoneís blanket.

A smile curled Parrenís mouth as the woman neared them, then slid quickly away once the woman spoke.

"You were not summoned or invited here. My father wishes for you to leave,í she commanded rudely and turned away from them. Parren felt hot anger rise up inside of her. She reached out and grasped the womanís arm.

The woman gasped in shock and spun around. How dare this shameless woman touch her as an equal! She was about to give the strangers a seething lecture when the bare-breasted woman spoke to her first.

"That was most rude of you. Without so much as an introduction or asking for an explanation as why we are here, you dismissed us as though we were peasants! I am Parren, Emissary to my people, the Sinagua. Our race were the first to colonize this new world, long before the likes of your kind stepped forth from the Sky Boats. We are NOT to be treated in such a manner again. Now, what is your name?" Parren commanded.

The womanís lips parted but she made no sound. Never had she met anyone who commanded such spiritual strength before. This was no ordinary outsider, to be sure. She managed to speak her name.

"Hyenta."

"Well, Hyenta, we wish to speak to your father about trade for your metal and its forging. Please inform him of our wishes." The young woman nodded and left the room.

Jopa whistled softly. "I thought you ruined everything, Parren."

"Yes," said Thrana, "I thought you had gone mad. Everyone kept telling us to be especially polite to these people and here you are snarling at one of them." The old Trader grinned. "Perhaps they do need a bit of shaking up after all."

"Perhaps Parren needs the boldness of the Gods themselves to push past all their rituals and arrogance," Jopa guessed. The others nodded.

"Show no weakness Parren," Hanpa told her.

 

Ramor entered the room nervously, eyeing the young woman his daughter told him about. She indeed held great inner strength, her power almost glowing from within. He would have to be careful how he refused her request.

"Please come with me. You must be tired from your journey." He led them to a small open room with huge openings overlooking a garden. A cool breeze stirred the air and trees planted outside kept the room in shade. It felt wonderful to the mountain dwellers. Servants entered the room with refreshments, placing them on a low table. The Traders took seats that formed a small circle inside the room, glad to get off their feet. A male slave placed a small cloth on each of their knees then handed everyone seated a bowl of cool water and a bowl of wedged fruit and bread.

Parren already knew that the highest ranked person waited last to take a bite or sip. In her mind, it was a symbol of pride and stubbornness. She would die of thirst before she touched her small meal before Ramor. Jopa, also knowing the custom, took the first sip and spoke his name. The elder Traders took a sip together and spoke their names almost at the same time. Parren glanced at the man across from her and refused to break eye contact.

He watched her nervously, his eyes wavering, unable to withstand her steady gaze. Everyone waited silently as the battle between Noble and Emissary took place. Long minutes passed. Parren saw the man tremble and sweat trickle down his cheek. It was a matter of time. She held firmly, refusing to blink or look away. This was a battle she planned to win. Finally, the man could take it no longer. His eyes dropped and he took a sip of water. Parren resisted the urge to smile smugly. They ate silently although she knew Ramor wanted nothing more than to question them. Custom demanded that Parren be the one who spoke first of the matter. She ignored his impatient expression and looked serenely out the window watching the birds jump from limb to limb while eating slowly. Make him wait.

The Emissary took her final bite of food and still ignored the Noble for several minutes. She had made a decision. Act as though the last thing they wanted was to trade. She was asked to come here against her better judgement. It wasnít a lie exactly, just a stretching of the truth. Perhaps being a contrary child would work.

"Let us get this over with Ramor," Parren sighed as though aggravated. "Our leaders asked us to take this side trip from our long journey and meet with those who forged your metal. They would consider a trade of information if your techniques were worth the bother of learning. I see little use of this new metal other than to make better butcher knives for the women of our community. Do be kind enough to reassure me this process is neither tedious or time consuming," Parren asked in a manner that suggested if she thought it a nuisance that she and her party would get up and leave.

"Emissary, a few steps could be considered difficult but that is why we use slaves for those details. I assure you that our metal forging is the best and purest found anywhere!" Ramor beamed proudly.

Parren hummed as though not convinced. "Regardless, I am authorized to negotiate for this exchange. Do we speak with you alone or to a counsel of forgers?"

He seemed eager to please her at this point. "There is no need to bother with such details. I can take your offer to the other members and bring back their answer. May I ask what you offer in exchange?"

Parren bit back the excitement in her voice. "Our Rangar Society is willing to reveal a few of their protected secrets, but then it really depends on what your actual needs are, true? We know of things passed down from the ancient ones, magical things that men have died trying to steal. Would you desire the knowledge to produce light without fire? Or to have a medicine that cures any festering wound? Or do your scholars covet copies of the original texts that our priests possess? Speak to your people, Ramor. Decide on what you desire and bring me your answer," she whispered seductively.

His eyes were glazed as he pondered the possibilities. "You will be my guests until then, Emissary?" She inclined her head regally.

 

To be continued...

SDerkins61@yahoo.com

 

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