Donovan stepped inside the smithy and announced, "Wood's all chopped, Vidar. Any other chores you need help with?"

He'd had the decency to put his shirt back on, but his face was still flushed from the recent exercise. The heat emanating from the open furnace didn't help matters.

"Hmmm..." Vidar mulled, chin in hand, as he glanced around the somewhat cramped confines of the smithy.

The building was made from stone from the ground to about knee-high, then wooden walled and roofed. Inside was the forge, bellows, woodpile, anvil (set into one serious stump) and a whole assortment of hammers, tongs, bars, dippers, and who knew what all.

Added to the mix was red-skinned Vidar, who looked almost satanic in the glow from the furnace’s red-hot coals, and two apprentices — his son Halli, who was as red as his father (and probably would end up as well-muscled) and Finnogi the Hunting Person, who was starting to bulk up far beyond what Donovan suspected was normal for one of the feline-looking humans.

"Ah!" Vidar brightened and then pointed to a number of straw brooms in one corner. "You three can sweep out the dust, draw water, refill the wood pile, and rake the coals." Nodding in satisfaction, he sat down on the anvil, resting his broad hands on his thick thighs.

"A clean shop keeps the fires down," he explained. "So don't skimp on your sweeping."

Donovan laughed, shaking his head. "One would almost suspect you were testing out a new apprentice," he said with a chuckle.

He turned to the two actual apprentices and cheerfully directed, "All right, we'll gang up on the invading dust bunnies, then I'll finish the woodwork by bringing it in, while Halli, you rake the coals, and Finnogi, you bring in the water. Sound good? Let's do it."

The two young men stared at Donovan for a moment, open mouthed, before turning to look at Vidar. The smith simply shrugged his broad shoulders and chuckled. "Sooner you clean up, the sooner you eat."

It didn’t take Donovan long to realize cooperative cleaning up had become a race to clean up. Finnogi and Halli seemed to be a bit put out by being told what to do by someone who wasn’t even an apprentice (and even if he was, he was their junior!), but also didn’t want to cause trouble in front of their master. That, and Donovan was getting his share of the work down in a manner that was both thorough and efficient. For several minutes there was no sound other than the rasp of brooms across the hard-packed earth, at which point the three scattered — Donovan to bring in several arm-loads of wood, Halli to smooth the glowing pile of coals into a warm bed, and Finnogi to tear off across the camp to the well, a bucket in each hand.

Finally, the three stood panting while Vidar carefully surveyed the inside of the smithy. With a well-practiced eye he examined the forge, the floor, and the large water tub used for quenching. Donovan felt like he was back in basic, with the drill sergeant examining the barracks before granting the troops leave.

"Excellent," the red man pronounced. "I see a little competition is good once in a while.

"Now," he clapped his hands together, "Let us eat."

That was the signal for Dagfithr, Vidar’s wife, to step into the forge carrying a cloth-covered basket. Unlike most of the women in the village, she tended to wear short-sleeved gowns, which revealed arms positively rippling with muscle. Vidar had mentioned that Dagfithr had helped with the forge before Halli had joined him. Even now, she sharpened knives and axes, set the shafts that Herger brought over, and worked the bellows. Which meant the creaking basket she had with her was probably loaded to the breaking point.

Setting the basket down on a table, Dagfithr pointed at the two apprentices. "Plates, knives, spoons, and cups," she commanded. "Also a bottle of mead, for we have a guest tonight." Not being fools, the two teens made themselves scarce.

Taking the cover off of the basket, she laid it across the table, slapping Vidar’s hand away before the smith could sample anything. "Donovan," she said, "could you set this out?"

"Yes, ma'am," Donovan replied politely, knowing full well who was in charge. He examined the basket's contents and carefully began removing items to arrange on the table. Two layers down, Donovan was still unloading foodstuffs and searching for any free space to place it. He'd once been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner by a friend from a large family. This spread was in the running to beat that dinner by sheer bulk and variety. The amount and selection of meat, vegetables, breads, and more was mind-staggering.

He wondered how much of this food was actually going to get eaten, then glanced at Vidar, Dagfithr and the two apprentices as they returned with table settings and retired his question. He had to admit, after the work he'd done today, he could easily put down a good share of the repast all by himself.

He found places for the last few things by the simple expediency of removing the basket from the table, then looked at Dagfithr expectantly for her assessment.

"Good," she acknowledged with a nod and then handed a knife and two-tined fork to Vidar. "Husband, if you will divide the meat?"

While he could understand all of their words, Donovan still found some of the meanings to be a bit puzzling. "Meat," for example. It didn’t (usually) refer to what he thought of meat — animal flesh — but instead to anything you ate. He’d felt somewhat pleased when he realized it was the origin of the phrase "meat and drink."

However, in this case, Dagfithr really did mean "meat," which Vidar started to carve with gusto, laying slabs of goat and pork on each plate, while Dagfithr added slices of dark bread and wedges of rich goat’s cheese. The two apprentices busied themselves with pouring drinks and filling small bowls with broth and vegetables.

"Now," Vidar said, after a few moments of doing nothing but eat (and Donovan could hardly blame him, the food was simple, but good), "you have worked for me, so now comes your payment. You had questions?"

Donovan swallowed the mouthful of food and answered quickly, "Yes, sir."

He paused a second to organize his thoughts. "As I mentioned before, my friends and I are strangers in this land. We know very little about it or the people that live on it. You've had a chance to meet and talk with passing traders. Any information you could give me about what lies towards the ocean, what sort of people we might meet as we travel there, well, it would help us very much.

"For example, we've met the people here in Fyrkat: the Farmers, the Hunters, and the Leapers. We've, well, encountered the Giants, and heard about the Night People. Are there any other races? Any others that we should watch out for?"

Vidar gnawed on a length of bone and thought. Beside him Dagfithr pushed a spoon around in a bowl of leafy greens, then leaned over, her braids hiding her face a she spoke in low tones.

Nodding to his wife’s whispers, Vidar looked over to Donovan. "I am reminded that while the Night People are small, much smaller than the Giant People, and shorter than most of us here, they are not to be ignored. They seem to treat night as we do day, and can be quieter than a Hunting Person on the prowl." He tossed the bone into a large bowl of scraps, feed for the pigs and compost piles. "They can climb as well, and have snuck over the walls more than once. They steal anything small — food mostly — but will take your livestock if they can."

"My mother told me they steal children," Finnogi supplied.

"And the dead," Halli added.

Dagfithr glanced at the two young men. "They do both, if they can."

Spreading butter and honey on a hunk of bread, Vidar gestured to Donovan with his knife. "You can tell a Night Person because they are dark and short, with large eyes and ears."

"Donovan?" Halli asked, "Have you seen the Water People?"

"No, Halli, I haven't," Donovan answered with an amiable smile. "Are they friendly?"

"They are," Finnogi answered quickly, edging out his fellow apprentice. "And are a sign of good luck. Water People in a lake or river means the water is safe to bathe in or drink from."

"They look as you or I do," Vidar rumbled, "but have pale skins, like Marcus does. Their hair is long and green or blue, like Dagfithr’s."

"But they have no legs," Dagfithr stated with a glance at her husband, who held one of her braids as an example to Donovan. "Instead they are like a fish below the waist. Like this." She used her knife to lift a fish’s tail from its bowl of sauce and nodded at it.

Donovan's eyebrows climbed up his face. Mer-people? he thought incredulously. Are they pulling my leg?

He took a bite of some bread to give him time to ponder this. He had no way to know if this was their idea of a joke, but his gut told him they were being sincere.

I should let Calvin know about this. The guy would probably freak about getting to draw honest to goodness real mermaids, he thought, smiling at the image.

Finally, Donovan responded. "We have legends back where I'm from about people like that, but I've never seen one. Are some near? Do you... trade with them?"

"They live lower in the river," Vidar replied. "We trade some of our food, like cheeses, vegetables, and fruits, for the fish they catch."

"Herger makes them wooden spears in exchange for pearls," Halli supplied.

"And they eat everything raw. Even frogs," Finnogi added, with a look of slight disgust.

Donovan decided this was not a good time to bring up sushi. He nodded and said, "Thank you," then turned to Vidar. "Do you have any information on the people we might meet when we'll travel..." he paused as he racked his brain to recall the term the villagers used for the Center, "ah, sunward?"

"Burrowing People?" Dagfithr inquired as Vidar looked thoughtful.

Donovan looked at Vidar inquisitively.

"No, they’re mountainward," the smith answered, then looked over at Donovan. "The Burrowing People live in the ground. They’re short, maybe this high," he held his hand about five feet from the ground, "but very strong. They dig homes in the earth and mine for metal to trade for food. I visit them about once a season."

"Okay," Donovan replied, furiously scrubbing the mental image of a marching line of cartoony little people singing "Heigh,ho!" out of his head. "Any chance they may also be sunward? Do they travel outside of the mountains?"

The smith gave a shrug of his broad shoulders. "I travel mountainward to trade with them. If they are elsewhere, I can’t say."

He set a small bowl on the table and pointed at it. "This is Fyrkat." He set a large bowl near it. "This is Askam, which is the size of four Fyrkats." ("At least," Dagfithr clarified.) A crust of bread became the mountains, a berry the home of the Burrowing People. Vidar then made wide sweeping motions aways from 'Askam.'

"Traders come up from the ocean, which is said to be a lake so large you can’t see across it. They pass through many forests and across wide plains before they reach us. They come every harvest, then return, making a circuit across the land and up and down the escarpments, pass through the lands of many peoples."

A hint of excitement crept into Donovan's voice. "How soon until the next harvest and their visit?"

"Sixty, seventy days." Vidar glanced at Dagfithr for confirmation, who nodded.

"Donovan," Halli interjected, "depending on which caravan comes, you might get to meet Running People."

"Running People," Donovan repeated, his head nodding with a "go on" gesture.

"They’re really tall," the youth stated. "As tall as Billyjo."

"Taller," Finnogi interjected. "With skin as dark as Cyan’s."

"And hair like cornsilk," Halli added.

"They run like the wind," Dagfithr mercifully cut in. "Only the Leaping People can really keep up with them."

"So never challenge one to a race," Vidar said. "Or accept such a challenge. You’re sure to lose." He gestured at the 'map' he’d made. "They say they live on the plains along the ocean. Those who come up with the caravans trade mostly in leather and hides."

"Now," Vidar said as he cleared space around his crude map with one broad hand and started to lay out crusts of bread 'sunward' of Fyrkat. "Caravans tell us that there are broad forests here, between our villages and the cliffs. At the bottom of the cliffs is an even greater forest, hot and wet with rain. Forest People live there. They look as you and I, but are green and dwell in the trees. There are also the Beast People, who look like men with the legs of goats or deer, or so the traders say."

Donovan followed the recitation with bright eyes, eagerly absorbing the data.

The smith paused and tapped the bread representing the 'greater forest.' "A trader once told me that a... a..." he paused and looked puzzled as he searched for the right words. "That a Serpent Person once came to trade with them. He also looked as you or I, but like a Water Person, he had no legs. Instead, he had the body of a great snake, perhaps ten or twelve paces long."

Taking a drink of mead, he looked over at Donovan. "I thought to call the man a liar, but I know there are many different people in the world. That, and I liked his wares. If he wished to think he fooled me with a wild tale, so be it. It will not lessen the price I asked for spear heads."

Donovan nodded, acknowledging the wisdom of Vidar's words. "Did the trader give you any information about the Snake People's disposition?" he asked, his eyes still trained on the makeshift terrain Vidar had laid out as his sharp mind stored its layout for future reference.

“No,” Vidar shrugged, “Other than to say he drove a hard bargain.”

Gazing at the map, Dagfithr waved her hand over it. “We have also heard stories of Sky People, who come from the air. They ride on great ridge poles and spear heads as large as a long house. Like the Night People they steal food, livestock, and people, carrying them away into the sky to never be seen again.”

Donovan accepted this last bit in somber silence. He'd heard about the villagers' mistrust of 'Sky People' but this was the first time he'd heard the whole story. He was glad they'd decided to keep the fact that they'd been passengers on a plane on the down-low at the big pow-wow that first night. And he reminded himself to stress the need to continue the practice to the rest of the group.

Respectfully, he nodded to Vidar and the others. "You have all given me much to think about. I thank you for this." He made sure his words extended his gratitude to everyone at the table.

"This information will be helpful when we move on." His face broke into a grin. "That may be a while, though, so if you need any more help, I'll be glad to lend a hand. If only to sample some more of Dagfithr's excellent cooking."

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