Centumcellae is the largest city in Agus. It is located at the mouth of the Sisku-wihane (Susquehanna) River, where the river runs into the Chesepiooc (Chesapeake) Bay. It was two and a half days travel from where we last talked to lord Asmodeus. Leofgif kept an eagle eye on domina Nevianne, not that our lady needed it. Or, to be fair, her mother was keeping her eye on the young decurion, Quintus, who did need it. Everyone said he was a handsome devil, he first and loudest of all. I don’t think she really needed to watch him, because he was now convinced that our lord was actually a wizard, if not actually a demon, and that he might reappear at any moment and turn him into a noble and handsome muskrat or maybe a potato.
The rations the troops are given, especially while on patrol, are pretty boring. For the most part they have bacon, hardtack, and vinegary wine for two days; and bacon, bread, and decent wine the third. I kept busy and earned fare for the boats by selling fresh birds to the troops and at rest stops. These were mostly passenger pigeons, but also a couple turkeys and some wild chickens. The second day’s travel, I took Quintus and his batman hunting and he tipped me generously when we scored a boar. He got it honestly too. I flushed it and he took it with a leaf-bladed hunting spear. He was more than mere good looks, I decided.
Centumcellae was even bigger than the capital. There were dozens of craft in the harbor, mostly fishermen who went for the shad that swarmed in the local waters in the spring and summer, plus whatever other fish were in season, which were many. There were crowds at the markets along the piers, which were heavy with the odor of fish guts on the planking and smoking fillets on the grills. The mongers brayed their catches, from mullets to five pound bass and back to shad roe. Our Little Bird was in her element, sampling every kind of fish she was offered, enjoying all the noise and the pungent smells and the excitement.
We put up at a guest house near the forum, accommodated by witches and wizards, naturally. Grandmother Leofgif had appropriated Sabina as her maid, and our lady and Blæda stayed in that room with them. The Onondaga boy stayed with Winky and Chulëntët and me. I wasn’t particularly happy to have him with us, but I wanted to keep an eye on him. I had been raised not to trust the Iroquois people. The Susquehannocks had been the Lenape’s hereditary enemies in the days before the Empire, or so our wise men told us. We still weren’t fond of them, even though our tribes and clans were all equal before the Emperor. Of course, the other Iroquois didn’t like the Susquehannocks either. It gave us something in common.
Kogwahee and I accompanied our lady to look at the ships, pretending we were her bodyguards even though she was more powerful than either of us. It was a matter of family prestige, like when I had chased our lord off when I was gathering brush, or the way Winke cleaned and brushed our lady’s dress and did her hair. Chulëntët tagged along with us, and if anyone was bodyguard it was she.
Lady Nevianne asked our opinion freely as we looked at the boats. Sometimes she took it, sometimes not. One boat looked excellent. It was almost new, just the right size – maybe thirty feet, I’d guess-- but the captain and his crew looked like they were just out of, or on their way into jail, if not worse. “I need to book passage to Graviscae, if your craft can navigate the entire way,” our lady told him.
“Graviscae?” the rascal mused, combing his fluffy red beard with his fingers. “That’s a long way off, missy…”
“Your Lady,” I corrected.
He gave me an appraising look, then shrugged. “My Lady,” he corrected. Kogwahee was busy looking indignant, which raised him in my estimation. Family honor, of course. “For the four of you?”
“Plus my mother, her servant, my friend, and my servant’s wife.”
“Eight people? Maybe a solidus?”
“Come, Nannakussi, Kogwahee,” my lady sniffed. “We’ll buy our own boat and hire a crew.” Kogwahee and I kept our straight faces, since we would have perhaps enough money to eat that evening after laying out for an honest fare.
“A half solidus, then,” the captain suggested, not wanting us to walk away.
“Never mind,” quoth Lady Nevianne. “I’m sure Mother can find us a ship.”
“A quarter solidus then,” he sighed. “But you feed yourselves!”
“Perhaps fifty follis,” she sniffed, “and you provide meals and I don’t mean ship’s ration.”
I could see the pirate doing complicated – for him – mathematics in his head. At an eighth of a solidus, he might do just a little better than break even on the trip, assuming only a half cargo of grain to go up, to make room for us. His actual profit would be in the manufactured goods to come back, which would be the way he usually made his living. Passengers were a rarity and grain was cheap this time of year.
“You’ll pay up front?” he suggested.
“Certainly not!” she laughed haughtily. “My intended will pay when we arrive safe and sound, when we’re not left stranded at some Bird-villa in the sticks.”
“Half up front,” he demanded.
“Nannakussi, have you brought any money?” she asked.
“A few pentanummi, my lady,” I told her truthfully.
“Give him what you have. Your name, captain?”
“Marcus of Marcodava, my lady.”
I reached into my money pouch, to find that my few pentanummi had bred, and now amounted to twenty five follis. Being servant to a witch can sometimes be fun and profitable. I gave him the follis, plus two ratty old wampum belts, and eight interesting-looking shells I had kept from Assateague.
Shortly after two bells that very same day, we were pulling away from the shore, a little cramped, but comfortable enough. Lady Nevianne and her mother took a nap in the space under the foredeck, out of the sun. Kogwahee and I dropped lines into the water, baited with weevils from the grain bins, and caught crappies for our dinner. Lady Blæda, Winke and Sabina watched us and chatted.
My daughter turned herself into Mike, scaring the wits out of captain and crew as she rolled around the deck. Somehow she made herself lighter than air and started to float away. Rather than lose her, Winke tied the end of fifty feet of light line to our child’s ankle and she bobbled above us in the breeze with a nice view of the countryside for miles around.
Sitting in a tree and grooming my feathers, I watched the bears patrolling the approaches to the wizard’s castle. It occurred to me after awhile (remember, I was currently a bird brain) that in The Wizard of Oz the Wicked Witch’s castle guards had been called “Winkies.” They hadn’t mentioned that in the movie, but it was in the book. I didn’t think Palégos’ winkies were nearly as cute as our Winky. They looked underfed, even emaciated.
I wanted to talk to one of those sad-looking Winky Bears, always assuming they could talk. Kogwahee had had the same monkey face, so it was a good bet they “bears” were changelings as well. The problem was that they mostly kept each other in sight. I say “mostly” because the longer I watched the more obvious it became that they liked privacy to do what bears do in the woods.
I flew a little lower and found a nice perch, keeping an eye on one promising-looking specimen who had been irritable for the past hour or so. I was guessing it had eaten something that didn’t agree with it. Sure enough, I could actually hear its tummy gurgle and it bolted for the bushes, where it squatted, looking a lot like a doggy in the same circumstances.
It was a simple enough matter. I simply stopped believing such a creature was possible. A flat monkey face on a body like that wasn’t adequate for feeding. The teeth were okay, but the snout wasn’t long enough to shovel enough in to keep body and soul in close acquaintance. The claws and paws combination weren’t efficient hands. In the twinkling of an eye, I was looking at a naked young Indian maiden, squatting in considerable gastric distress. She was so skinny she looked starved.
The smell hit me. I turned back into myself, waving my hand in front of my nose. “Ewww!” I said in Lenape. “Girl! What have you been eating?”
She squawked, leapt about two feet into the air, and came down stepping into what she had recently gotten rid of. She looked at me with big, dark eyes that reminded me of Chulëntët’s, only angry and very, very frightened. I could understand. That’s the least dignified position anyone ever wants to be caught in, especially by surprise.
She braced herself to run and I became Piggy the Demon again. I shot a burst of flame across a pair of tiny girlish bows, then another when she turned the other way. “Stop!” I ordered in Saxon, since she didn’t appear to understand Lenape. “Stay where you are! And… um… wipe your foot.”
She moved, but it wasn’t to run. She had to squat again, groaning and looking distressed and clutching her belly with both hands. I resumed my usual face and body and hopped down from the tree. The poor thing was straining and getting no result. I’d eaten at a fast food joint once and had a similar experience. Probably everyone has at least once.
I waited, without looking at her directly, as the cramps ran their course. The privacy was minimal, but nobody likes an audience when they’re that unhappy. “Better now?” I asked in Saxon when it looked like the episode was over.
She looked blank, so I tried Latin. She understood that, at least. She nodded, not wanting to look at me. She looked like she was in her middle teens, just a young girl, dark of hair, fairly dark of complexion, your typical Indian maiden, only really skinny and unhealthy-looking. She wasn’t gorgeous or even pretty, but she wasn’t homely and certainly not ugly. Her hair was a mess, which is important to girls, and her attitude said she was aware of the fact. Her belly protruded like she might have malnutrition, her belly button poking out, not in. Her legs were skeletal. She was also scared of me. She wasn’t fond of wizards and demons and such.
“Do you have a name?” I asked.
“I am Tekon-Wena-Harake,” she told me, hesitantly.
“Pleased to meet you,” I told her. “My name is Jack.” She probably didn’t want to hear that she’d fallen into the clutches of the Lord of Lust, much less King of Demons, Count of the Corpse-Strewn Plain, whatever, whatever. I couldn’t remember them all. “You look better when you’re not a monkey-faced bear,” I added. It was true, but only marginally so. “What is your tribe?”
Her eyes shifted left and right, looking for an escape route. “I am Mohican,” she groaned. Then she went into a crouch, hugging her belly again.
“What did you eat?” I asked conversationally when I thought she could talk again.
“The meat was bad,” she told me. “It usually is. All of us have been sick, almost every day. Today is worse than usual.”
“Have you thrown up?” I asked.
She shook her head, looking miserable. “I feel like I have to, but nothing comes. Others of us have.”
“All right,” I said. “Come along, child. I’m staying down by the river,” I pointed, “that way. Let’s get you cleaned up and get you something to drink.”
She finally did toss her cookies on our way to my perch at Mauch Chunk (Bear Place). Her face was clammy and there was a sheen of sweat on her cheeks and forehead. She looked even worse than when I had first seen her.
We finally made it to the friendly banks of the Lehigh after two stops for dry heaves and an emergency squat that produced nothing but cramps and embarrassment. I had one mighty sick little girly on my hands. I let her clean up in the river. I think the cool water helped her a little. Being clean helped too. When I was pretty sure the spasms had passed, I had her take a nap on a big patch of moss under an oak tree. She zonked out in about ten seconds.
I had to cast about to find Nevy, finally locating her on a boat headed north. She was talking to a nasty-looking guy with a red beard and a bald red head.
“Make her stop doing that, or I’ll put you all ashore!” he snarled. “She’s scaring my crew!” He was yelling, waving his hands for emphasis.
“Who is?” I asked.
The mighty sailor man took a look at my mostly transparent self, turned white as a sheet, and fainted dead away. The rowers stopped rowing and the ship started to drift toward shore.
“I think he might be anemic,” Nevy told me, referring to the captain, but pointing up. Chulëntët was drifting along above us, tethered by one ankle and looking like a balloon from where I sat.
“Little Bird!” I grumbled. “What are you doing up there?”
“I’m not Chulëntët!” she called. “I’m Mike!”
“Mike is a boy!” I told her.
“She is not,” replied the Little Bird indignantly. Nevertheless, she slowly deflated and rejoined us on the deck as her own sweet self.
“I’ve got a sick girl here at Mauch Chunk,” I told Nevy, switching to English. “Looks like a case of food poisoning from bad meat. Any ideas?”
“I can’t heal her long distance,” said my love. “Where did you get her?”
“She’s one of the Wizard’s guards, a Mohican Winky Bear, of all things. Can you tell me how to fix her up?”
She described a fairly simple healing spell, one that didn’t involve any fireworks since I hadn’t carried any along in my sparrow travels. While she was describing it to me there, I was applying it at my end. Tekoni gradually looked more relaxed.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” I told her. “I love you dearly.”
“I love you too, Lord of Lust,” she told me.
“I love you too, dominus Asmogee,” our Little Bird told me.
“I love you too, Little Treasure,” I told her. “When did you learn to speak English?”
“Domina taught me last night.”
She was definitely a prodigy, I thought to myself as I reformed back in my bend of the Lehigh.