Gurgling sounds announced the presence of the mountain spring that I had been looking for. I took some rocks from where the water flowed, and found the hidden catch basin in back of them. I sank my water skin into the pool and filled it. And then nearly drained it with my thirst, though I drank slowly so that I wouldn't get cramps.
"Is there evil magic on this side of the road?" asked the ghost.
"Maybe. I don't know, but I hope not," I told him honestly, sinking the skin into the bowl of the spring again. Then I replaced the protecting stones, and slinging the water skin on the opposite side from Targold's jar as a counterweight, continued down the sloping hillside, knowing that the Gershom Caravan Trail would be my next stop.
"How will we be safe, then?" asked the boy.
"We won't be. The world isn't completely safe for anyone. We just keep on going, one step in front of the last, and hope for the best, and hope to do what we can to bring Life to the World." I hit another game trail on the diagonal on the hill, and let downward momentum carry me a little faster, even skipping a little on the way down.
"But you aren't afraid." the boy's shade stated admiringly.
"Sometimes, but mostly no," I said. "I know that there's a world besides this one, and if I get back to the Mountain of Remembrance, that's great, but if I don't, I'll head on to the next world. There's people there I hope that I'll get to see again."
"How do you know they are there?"
"Because they said they were going there, my dear." And it was true. I knew people on the Mountain of Remembrance, and I'd said goodbye to people who told me they were heading off to the next world.
He swirled around me slowly. "But how do you know they got there?"
"Targold, no one knows anything for sure about the next world. We shamans listen to the Life That Guides the World, who tells us that all who seek Life will find It. So we tell everyone who cares to listen to seek Life, and avoid that kind of behavior that doesn't serve Life. And we keep on truckin' until we can't truck any more. And we choose to believe what we were taught about the goodness of the next world." I was distracted by the rapid descent and could not wait to hit the road at the bottom of the ridge.
About halfway down the southern side of the ridge, I left the game trail and bore left. That direction, I hoped, would bring me to the town of Midway on the Gershom Caravan Trail. Midway was a medium-sized town with a full service stagecoach stop and a nice daily market available for travelers. I was getting hungry again, what with it being spring and no food available for off-the-road mountain and field wayfarers. Twenty years (or more) ago, Midway was known for its sausages and oil-fried chicken that convinced caravans to stop for the night. And for the water of the creeks which cascaded down the mountain, supplying water to travelers, including the creek from one of whose sources I had drawn water near the top of the ridge.
There was a sound above the wind in the trees, and I stopped to listen. The sound was that of people, and of carts rumbling along the road. We'd found the town, all right. I went straight down the mountainside, until I came out from the canopy of trees and screens of brush.
"Toads of the gods," my ghost parcel exclaimed, as we drew into eyesight of Midway. "Who'd have ever thought?"
The little town had grown along the Trail like a poison ivy vine along the fence line of a potato patch. I recognized none of it, and was stunned by the proliferation of nail salons and hay-sellers that I saw there.
I picked my way through a back-alley kind of area strewn with horse and goat droppings, animals tied to hitching posts, their eyes sleepy and bored. On the main road, the dirt was pounded to dust that drifted up in clouds, and wagons and coaches and foot travelers moved from east to west and west to east in a constant flow.
Now certainly it wasn't that I didn't know city life -- I had been to Skuleflight Harbor many times, a city that is the hub for commerce by land and by sea -- but the last time I was in this area, traffic was quite moderate and cautious, composed of long, slow, heavily guarded trains of wagons, and of single vans that moved quickly with a few nervous drivers. Amazing what peace and prosperity do to a place!
Along the front of the buildings on either side of the highway was a walkway built of wood, raised above the level of the road, probably to keep patrons out of the mud on rainy days. I stepped up onto it, ducking under a railing, and walked along it.
"Look at that place!" Targold cried as I passed a shop that had bright-colored blankets hanging in front of it. "And that one over there!" he pointed out, looking at a man seated beside a rack of necklaces made from wooden beads.
"They are tourist traps," I said, and about four people on the wooden sidewalk looked at me with a bit of alarm. I took stock of my appearance and realized that an old woman with tangled hair and a sweaty robe, talking (seemingly) to herself might give passers-by the impression that she was a nutcase. Oh well, maybe it would help the poultry vendor think twice about shaking a pair of chickens in my face the way he was doing to a woman with a basket up ahead of me. "They hope to sell cheap goods to people not familiar with the land."
The town of Midway now stretched as far as I could see in either direction, on both sides of the road. Up against the ridge there were some small shops, over whose roofs an aqueduct soared. That was new since I'd been here last, for certain. On the other side of the broad dirt highway, a veritable metropolis had grown up. I was actually taken aback by the size.
Stopping and moving to the side, I got out of people's way. Living in my little village all winter in relative safety had made me careless. I began to look around at the people who were traveling, and those who were standing, to see if I could recognize any of them. Cities are attractive to wicked people -- they can go about unnoticed for a long time, unlike little villages and towns, where everyone knows everyone else and what they did last week and when they had their last bath. Fortunately, after a long and cautious look around, I saw no one whom I had defrauded, defeated, or demeaned, and set myself back on the westward wood sidewalk again.
"There's a lot of people here," Targold observed.
"This is apparently a major rest stop for commercial wagons," I explained. "People who are traveling a long distance to sell their wares stop here to eat and sleep. And other people come to live here, hoping to sell things to the people who are traveling through. Also, it's spring, and many people who wish to travel for pleasure do so now, after the worst of the cold weather is gone, and before the summer heat makes things miserable."
"Is that what it is?" asked a man walking near me. "Here I thought it was because of that gold mine of Leif Northun."
"Gold mine? I beg your pardon, this is my first visit to this town in over twenty years. There's a gold mine here?" I stepped forward to walk beside him.
"Oh, yes, about ten or twelve years ago, a man named Leif Northun was trying to dig out a pit for an outhouse in his back yard, and when he threw some rocks out of the hole, he saw a glint on one of them. Sure enough, he hit himself a lode of gold." The man laughed. "People around here say he was digging for shit and came up with shinola."
I laughed, too. "Wish I'd have thought of that one. Say, are you from around here?"
"Yes, I am. We don't see many shamans here," he said. "My name is Tom Dasher, I run a delivery business."
"Pleased to meet you, Tom. I'm Ase Ur-Jennan. You can call me Aser, if you please." I shook his hand. "You wouldn't happen to know if the caravan from Littledwarf Ridge down south has come through here yet or not, would you?"
"Which one? There must be five of them around this time of year."
"Dammit," I said. "I don't know, or at least don't remember who owns the caravan. All I know is it's big."
"Well, they all stop here, and if it was a big one, they probably camped over at The Watering Hole on the west side of town. Keep on heading thataway, and the innkeeper there can probably tell you better than I. Although, confidentially, that isn't the best place to stay unless you have to stick close to a big party like that."
"I doubt that I can afford to stay in the best place in the city," I told him truthfully.
"No, I mean 'best' in terms of what you get for what you pay for," he corrected. "My brother runs a little place called "The Hearth" that's comfortable and clean, and he throws in one meal a day on the cost of renting a room. Tell him I sent you and he'll give you a discount, too."
"'The Hearth,' eh? I'll keep it in mind. Depends on whether that caravan has been through Midway or not, I suppose. If it's already come through, I'll probably keep going."
"Be careful, then. You'll not get to the next town until long after dark, and it's a dangerous road to go toting a heavy load like you're carrying."
Ohh, gold mining town, I thought, and my spirits sunk. Spirits! "Tom, where is the town cemetery? Or the mortician?"
He looked startled. "There's a couple of both. Do you have a body to bury?"
"I'm looking to inter the remains of a friend in a cemetery that isn't too secluded. Do any of the cemeteries overlook the road?"
"I thought the dead were supposed to want peace and quiet so they can rest?" Tom said, a confused look on his face.
"Not this one," I assured him. "He wants to see as much of everything in the world that he can. Rest isn't something he cares about."
"How do you know that?"
"He told me, how else?"
After directing me to the undertaker in charge of the cemetery on the hill overlooking Midway's marketplace, Tom Dasher excused himself from my company, shuddering as he said goodbye.