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Parry walked into the blacksmith shop to find the tall man himself banging on a horseshoe. Parry watched him work as he had many times making the barrel hoops for his trade.

“Blackie, good morning!”

“Good morning to you, young sir. How can I help you? I have a small batch of hoops for you but we should talk about payment.”
Parry hedged. Well…I have some trade materials for you but I also need to set up new trades. For that, I will need some of the things that Grimley and the Princes bring in.”
“Hmmm. Are you sure that you are not building up a debt that you won’t be able to repay?”

“I can’t be sure. I sent all of my trade materials out earlier and I haven’t seen the ships come in. I live on hope like most traders.”

“Fair enough, you are at least honest about it. The supplies are in the back. I don’t know why he stores them there but they definitely bring enough back to support your trade. If you didn’t use them for trade, eventually someone would get around to it. There are also some hides that will need to be cured.

“New hides?”

“Only the new ones are uncured. You can leave them or cure them yourself. I’m still not quite sure why they do this when they don’t need to.”

“They hunt and bring in valuable skins and meat to the community much as the children forage for mushrooms and spices. Just possibly they are joining in with the community.”

“Parry, it is not as simple as that. Both of them are Princes and could demand the most comfortable lodgings and require others to wait on them hand and foot. I admire that they do not choose to live in such a fashion, but they not only allow people to take the hides, they have specifically requested it. Why was it again, that you needed to see them?”
“I haven’t worn out my welcome to the south or with the ships, but I think that it is time to open trade with the west and possibly the north.”

“The Woodkind are not much for trading. In times of war, I’ve heard that they lead patrols or scout for hire, but there has not been a war for quite some time. Up until recently, this kingdom has been a peaceful one. Who else is there to trade with?”

“To the north and west there is another kingdom that would welcome our trade. I have heard of traders bringing fantastic feathers, Woodkind bows and decorative carvings. Our town is now wealthy enough that some would be willing to trade for beautiful things. Regular trade helps everyone but someone has to start things off.”

“That brings me back to the main question. What do you need Barrett and Garrett for?”

“They know the country as no others do and traveling with a wagon, it is easier to not make mistakes with your choice of paths.”

“Load your wagon and I will tell them that you want to see them when they get here.”

Tendays later, Parry was working on constructing a barrel when he felt a shadow, a very large shadow. Actually, he saw two large shadows. Parry was of average height of about seventeen hands and he wasn’t done growing. As he turned, the two men, despite the fact that the doorway was a barn door, still blocked a fair amount of the entry.

Although twins, they were unmistakably different. Barrett, the older by minutes would probably be king and he looked the part. His golden hair blew wildly in the wind and carried down to his face in a full beard, as most men carried when they lived in the woods. Garrett, on the other hand, was darker and much neater with his hair pulled back. Both of them were large, wide in shoulder and a hand and a half taller, so that if he stood close, he had to look up a bit. Curiously, they looked to be about his own age.

The man behind them however would never be called young and yet he was not old. He was their guide and friend from all appearances and did not wait on them as an underling, spoke when he wished but he was obviously there for their protection. Grimley spoke first. “I hear that you wish to establish a trade route to the north. Do you wish to travel to the Woodkind or the nation to the west?”

“The Woodkind are known to be aloof and for that reason, I would like to trade with others. My wagon is loaded with supplies and I have only to load salt and a few spices for meals.”

Both Garrett and Barrett cocked their heads to Grimley and smiled when he replied, “Then we are ready to go. There is no need to shop for spices; we can pick them out as we go. They are best fresh anyway. We will show you how best to find them.”

The trip through the neighborhoods with plowed fields only took a short time and soon they were casting for trails and paths made by the native game. The first two days were relatively easy and they were able to make camp in the dusk after many long hours of travel. The third day, surprised him.

“I am glad that you brought extra pack horses, because we are going to need them.”

Parry looked at him in surprise and replied, “I brought no pack horses. I have the two horses to pull the wagon and my riding horse. I’ve no other.”

They are the pack horses. The wagon will go no further. There is every possibility of finding a place to drive a wagon all the way through, but that is not the way to search for new passages. From here on, we walk and the horses carry the loads.”

He shook his head. “I’ve no sacks, packs or way to load the horses.”

“Certainly, you do. These fine hides will make excellent straps…”

“…Boys, pick out a few hides for making strapping out of. Try to not use up the finer pelts.” His attitude was commanding. Garrett and Barrett set to in an efficient manner by beginning with unloading the wagon. The flat surface of the wagon became a work bench and each horse was loaded as the straps or bags were made. Soon, every horse had a load and they were tromping through the grass as if it had all been planned that way. The wagon was covered with brush and left. The harnesses were wrapped in an oiled hide. The spices and tubers that they had picked along the way, they left with the wagon, for there was plenty more to select from in these plentiful woods.

They didn’t get far, but Parry noticed that they wouldn’t have gotten even this far had they taken the wagon; the trees were denser, and would have stopped them, anyway.

Days wore on and Parry noticed that Barrett and Garrett were arguing. “What is the problem, boys?” He asked.

As was often the case, Barrett spoke first. “Garrett wishes to go west and I wish to go east. I would like to meet up with the Woodkind.”

Nodding, he looked to Parry. “Do you have any preference?”

Shrugging, Parry replied, “By all accounts, the Woodkind are private and not too welcoming in their territory. I will probably have more success going west.”
Grimley nodded. “I thought that you might think that way. We should stick together. I believe that we are closer to the Woodkind than the Western empire, so I will suggest that we go there first.

The wood got denser, if that was possible, and they began seeing more fruit bearing trees and berry bushes. In these near tropical lands, the trees and brush had their own schedule to keep and it seemed to have nothing to do with the seasons. They sampled every berry that they came across and by the day’s end, they easily had a brace of Coney and several birds brought down by sling or arrow.

Parry learned much from the three men. Each seemed to be survivalists and the master was Grimley. Most of the time, he let the princes operate on their own, but often, Parry found himself a student at the master’s knees. Fruit trees, tubers, brush berries, edible seeds, vines that held leaves used in various cures and cook pots as well as bark used in teas. The level under the bark was not ignored either as it was used in making strands, foods, teas and fire starters. It seemed that he had a use for every tree or brush, and every part of the plant from root to leaf. If it wasn’t beneficial, he found out its dangers and its uses if it was poisonous. It was an intensive training program that he found himself in and it seemed that the princes had been through that and more.

Days passed, with weather bright in the morning, showers that often never reached them until they were over and nights that were sweltering under the canopy. When he thought they would never see daylight again from under the canopy, they began to find paths that passed along unexpected openings in the forest. Sometimes there was a stream outlet that provided fresh water, a pond and fish; other times they found a cliff that they had to work around; sometimes from on high and other times from the bottom. The paths always took them gently around the obstacles.

Before they knew it, they found themselves again in a continuous canopy, this time with vines that ran up the trees for many man heights before reaching the first branches. Most the time the vines bore fruit or flowers and at night, some of the plants seemed to emit a soft light until the wee hours of the morning.

One morning did not go as planned.

“Wake up! Which one of you is the Master Tracker?”

Parry sat up suddenly. There were six warriors, armed to the teeth with arrows drawn on them. Grimley was already sitting up and munching on a piece of fruit. His bedroll was tied and the look on his face was of cheer, not fear. “I am your master tracker. I greet you brothers.”

“Who are you to call us brothers?” Growled the only one not supporting a bow.

“If I cannot greet you as a brother, than can I greet you in Peace?”
The tall, rangy man cocked is head in curiosity. “I have rarely seen someone greet me in peace while standing in front of my bowmen. Either you trust me or you are a fool.”

“I have no reason to not trust you. This is your home and I come uninvited, but I would wish to ask permission to enter your home.”

“In that case, I suppose that we will just have to let you come in.” He said this jokingly, but in a curious way. “What makes you think that we might invite you in?”

“I worship M’Lady and have heard that all who enter here must enter with her favor or never exit. From this, I presume that we are all brothers following M’Lady.”
“The tall man nodded. “Perhaps you are not a fool. Come, we will test you for your honesty. Grab your packs and follow us.” With that, he led off up one of the paths while the others disappeared into the trees. The weapons were not lowered as long as they were in sight. Parry looked to the others and saw no fear. He believed in M’Lady, but never thought one way or another as to whether he was a follower of hers or not.

A hand span or so of the unseen sun passed and they came into a valley that was bright with color and more open than most of the forest around them. In the trees were vines like in the forest behind them, but there were also platforms on many of the branches in the upper reaches of the trees. The vines formed an easy climb to these platforms and undoubtedly some of them lived on them. Many more made homes on the ground. Some tents were readily seen in some areas, actual brick and mortar homes in other areas. Each built to his taste. It made for a rather strange view in the woods, but attractive as the scene was fairly balanced.

“Welcome gentlemen. I hope your trip was not too arduous?” a shadow stepped out of the shadows in greeting them.
Grimley stepped forward with his hands out wide, palms up and open. “Our morning waking was slightly exciting and rather bracing, other than that, it has been a rather nice hike. You’ve a beautiful home in this land. Is it all so welcoming?”

He found himself gazing into the dark green eyes of a tall, strong woman. She was willowy in her movements and pleasing to his eye.

Gently, she prodded, “Your presence has been requested by Jyne. He is most curious as to how you managed to penetrate our diversion maze.”
Nodding he indicated to the other three that it was time to meet the man in charge. They rose, put on their gear and followed her from their tent to an open area that lead out to a single large tree. This tree was massive not in diameter, but in height. The lower branches, if you could call them lower, formed a dense canopy that allowed no other growth on the ground below it. That ground was covered in previous year’s leaves that formed the raw material for future year’s growth. Parry knew that in order to survive, there would have to be another source of minerals, but there was plenty of light and water. It made sense that there would be such a large tree in the forest. He was mildly surprised that there weren’t more giants.

In his mind, he heard a gentle voice speak. “There are other giants in the wood, but none will survive near me, as I am too greedy to allow others to inhabit the space that I live in. Of all the plants you see in this world, all of them are mine to control. In one way or another, I am connected to almost every life on this world.”

Not quite startled, but surprised, Parry questioned. “You are M’Lady?”

“Of course! Who else would treat you so?”

Each of the others had similar discussions with M’Lady. If they were given any secrets, they did not later share them, and soon they found themselves ‘almost’ alone in their mind again as a tall, solid man stepped forward. “My name is Jyne. I live here with my people and M’Lady. Always is she with me and if you so wish it, she will stay with you as well. It is her nature. Personally, I would like to know your purpose.”

Parry stepped forward. “I asked these gentlemen to help me begin trade relations with the kingdom to the west of here and we were all curious as to the nature of this land we are in. Once started in this direction, we seemed to not be able to turn away, although my initial goal was to travel in a more westerly direction.”

Jyne nodded. “Sometimes, we are not in full control of our futures. It is good to meet you and I would like you all to spend time with my people. Do any of you have people worried about your time of return?”
Parry looked to the others who each in turn shook their heads. For his part, he replied. “My schedule is governed by season and the availability of trade goods. No others have interest in my presence at any given time, yet.”

“You sound hopeful.”

Thoughtfully, Parry considered his words. “I think perhaps there is someone, but a large part of the decision will come from her. I lead a wandering life at present. One day I will settle down.”

“A fine prediction, but possibly you will not stay settled.” Parry nodded in agreement. He had done nothing but travel for many years and it would take something special for him to settle down. Perhaps… “My companions are on their own schedule.”

They spent days visiting the people and seeing their homes. Many were common but far more had different styles, types and locations. As suspected, some of them lived, literally, in the trees. Others preferred to live near the streams that were plentiful but all of them lived close to nature. Parry spent his time, as any good trader would, learning of the things that would be valuable to trade with and for. The skins and spices were of no interest to them and very few of the foods. The sweet powder that he distilled from the fast growing stalks of the south interested them, and the liquid fire that was brewed by Armad. The man was his biggest competitor and here it turned out that his brew was a major trade item. It figured.

The Princes made friends with quite a few of the men and were surprised to find that the ‘young’ men were not always so young in years. There were very few children.

One woman that greeted them took a fancy to Grimley. It appeared that his constantly happy demeanor and knowledgeable acceptance of things he had never seen before puzzled her. This trait kept them together as he ‘discovered’ many things that he didn’t know about cooking, spices and specific trees that only grew in this area. He and Shar spent every waking moment together.

Finally, the time came for them to continue their trip. Shar volunteered to guide them. They started early and packed light except for the furs and ropes. The horses remained in a field where they would be cared for while they carried light stock that remained from their trades here. They carried none of the trade items that they had gained here. Jyne had indicated that the items would not be needed until later.

The humid day began to dry a bit as they moved from heavy tropical forest to open area. The paths decorated with fruit and berries, dwindled until they found themselves climbing a steep hillside. The day ended at a flat plateau that allowed them to gaze over the path from which they came.

Shar waved a hand to the north following a ridge that meandered in that direction, pointing out the volcano that mastered the northern sky. “The northern coast lies there. It is many tendays of travel in the woods and would be very little less if we could walk a straight line to its peak. Look now to the east.”

To the east, was all jungle, the home of the Folk. “You cannot see the shore from here, but it is well past the tree line. The shore is lined with cliffs that bar entry to those without the climbing skills.”

“Look now to the west.” The forest was thinner with a high plateau that formed the skyline. “That next plateau past the river begins the West Kingdom. The King’s rule is as kind as is your father. War has rarely visited these lands because of the land barriers, though trade suffers. Past the plateau lands, cliffs and mountains to the south and north guard the coastline.”

“In the far corner of the northwest is a tropical forest that sweeps to the volcano and guarded by steep, rough terrain, a myriad of poisons in an unbelievable variety of animals. The people there train their birds to their will and are more jealous of their privacy than we are. Their shores are equally difficult to broach. If you desire to trade with them, I suggest that you speak with Jyne, or hope that one of them seeks you out. Just as we are self-sufficient and do not desire many of your trade items, they are even more independent and rather capricious.”

Parry turned and looked south. Measured by the eye, it seemed that he could see farther south than in any other direction. When he asked her why, she answered. “In all directions but south, there are forests, mountains or a plateau blocking your view. Beyond a few low hills to the south, there is nothing but plains. The bluffs on the southern face of the continent cannot be seen from here. It is too far away.”

“From the sound of it, the only place that the ocean meets lower ground is on the eastern coast. How is that possible?”

She answered Parry. “We do not know, but we do know that almost anything is possible. If it weren’t for the great barriers, people from beyond the west would have long ago settled the western shore and probably swept their control across the lands.”

“Does no one live there to stop them?”

“Many live there, but the land itself is the best protection and at one time or another, M’Lady assures me that we all came from there.”

The sun set as they set up camp. Tomorrow would bring them into the plateau region where they would look all the harder for a trade route.

It took days, a few false trails and when they finally came out on tilled land, they found themselves on the eastern most portion of the kingdom. Well planned dirt roads led ever inward until they made it into town. This was a small, isolated village and still, the roads were wide and flat enough for wagons to pass. Both of the brothers were quite impressed and even more so when they found out how many streams and rivers the roads had to pass over. The trip between their kingdoms would be much easier now that they didn’t have to travel north to work around the Red River. In fact, that was probably the main reason that there was no formal trade route.

“Barrett!” He directed a question to his brother.

“Yes?” Garrett turned back on his horse to answer more directly.

“All those workers in Red Valley will soon be out of work. We are going to have to use them to build bridges all over our land.”

“Do you mean, like they have here?”

“Yes, but maybe they should use their talents and build them a little sturdier and fancier. Once they are established, we can send some of them up here to improve on their bridges. Some of them are getting old.”

“It looks like they will never be out of work in their life time.”

“I was thinking along those lines. In fact, if we have a crew to build bridges along the trade routes first, we will have better trade relations sooner.”

“It could work against us.” Barrett mentioned.


“It could speed an enemy along.”

“It could speed help as well and if we know the weak points, we can isolate part of an enemy from the rest and fight them divided after bringing down a bridge or two.”

“If we control the construction, you might be right.”

It took a few more days before reaching the main trade center. Just as in Oman, it was on a major waterway and held the King’s home.

“We are here, and what do we do?” Garrett asked his charge.

“You are kidding aren’t you? No, I suppose that you are not. First, we find out how soon a major trade day is and next we find out where the people in charge are.”

Barrett smiled, “Wouldn’t that be the King?”

“Not necessarily. There are traders that control far more of the activities in a town or even a kingdom than a King.” All we have to do is ask around a bit. There will be somebody who knows who the major traders are and when the next trade day will be. In the meantime, we will need a place to stay.

Having arrived late in the day on the outskirts of town, they decided to find a place to keep the horses and themselves. Following the sound of steel pounding on steel, they eventually found themselves face to face with the biggest man that either of them had ever seen. The hammer he held, looked small in his hands, but when he put it down, they realized that neither of them could have handled it unless they used both hands.

“How many horses?” The big man asked.

“Four,” Answered Parry. He was ready to negotiate, but the man just shrugged. “Let them out in that field over there. Your first day is free and if you find a cheaper place in town, you can move them then. Since you are new here, I’ll let you tell me what you are looking for after you come back.”

“Fair enough!” Parry nudged Garrett before he could open his mouth. He’d dealt with people that preferred this method of trade and found that rarely did they treat you unfairly. The man reminded him of the Plainsmen, even if he was twice any of their height.

Next on their agenda, was a place to sleep and keep their gear.

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