Sea of Grass, part seven

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After some time Harbend joined them, and from his expression when he joined the conversation Arthur could see that if they did indeed speak Khi, it must be in a dialect very difficult for Harbend to understand.

Arthur gave up any pretense of being useful and withdrew to the rest of the escort where they stood as ready to either respond to an attack or enjoy themselves if they were finally allowed on the inside of the stockade. In the end they were let in, and while Harbend and Nakora haggled about the terms with the man Nakora had addressed earlier Arthur rode in search for an inn.

The streets were not paved at all, but sidewalks of wood allowed people to walk along the streets without getting too muddy. The streets themselves were a dirty, smelly mix of manure, mud and straw, and only the cold kept them from being too soft for the wagons.

He sniffed. The cold probably kept the worst of the smell away as well.

Arthur watched people milling around the streets stopping as they passed by, and for the second time in a short while he was reminded of just how large the caravan was. Even though only a small portion of them had been let in almost a hundred traders, guards and servants spread out in the town with wagons and horses already taking up more space at the gate than it was built to handle.

It was clear most of them would never be allowed in at the same time, and for a while a town would grow up outside the gates.

Almost like the market outside of Verd, Arthur remembered.

He saw a sign possibly depicting food and decided to take his chances. It wasn't as if he was doing anything dangerous anyway. Two traders and Captain Laiden followed him with several soldiers trailing them. Arthur dismounted and tethered his horse to a wooden rail. The entire town made him feel like visiting a holiday hub on the American plains, one dedicated to an earlier era of exploration, but the houses here were smaller, and some were clad in large mosaics of hides as additional protection from the wind, something he'd never seen before.

Arthur entered the building and came into a narrow, short corridor ending at yet another door. It made sense. He looked over his shoulder.

"Close door. I open door second," he said in De Vhatic.

He waited for the door to close, opened the inner one and crossed the threshold. A large room, sparsely lit by torches and open fires, already half full with men of all ages busy talking with each other or eating. Maybe not an inn, but definitely a tavern of some kind. It wouldn't be too long before Harbend found his way here, or at least someone from Ri Khi who could translate their needs for the night. Until then Arthur planned to stay indoors and get something to eat and drink.

"This tavern high quality? We stay standard unit evening and trade dinner?" he asked Trindai.

The captain nodded and sat down at a table, and as Arthur did the same they were joined by the two traders. Pointing at the other guests and his stomach and mouth Arthur managed to order something. It would be a surprise, but then anything would've been, even if he'd been able to speak their language.

Soon steaming mugs were placed on their table and Arthur tried to get a better look at his surroundings. He was sitting on a bench, resting his feet on earthen floor and with a mug of what he hoped was heated wine in his hands. It smelled strongly of alcohol anyway. He caressed the mug and let the heat seep through his fingers. It didn't matter what it was as long as it was hot enough to banish the ever-present cold. Arthur tried a mouthful. If it was wine it was of a kind he'd never drunk before. There was a salty tinge to it that wasn't unpleasant. Altogether it tasted somewhat like a consommé mixed with strong liquor. Not bad. Not bad at all. He emptied the mug and belched. One more of these and he'd feel life returning.

Hides covered part of the walls, or more probably, window slits to keep winter outside. Several fireplaces lined the center of the rectangular room, kettles hanging from hooks over the flames, and Arthur could see the fires were built on stone with what had to be ovens in the middle of each. As if to confirm his assumption a heavyset man grabbed a long shafted baking peel hanging on a wall and fished out a loaf of bread, placed it on a nearby table and put a large piece of kneaded dough on the spade before inserting it into the oven.

Arthur looked up as Trindai returned with a tray full of mugs and small bowls.

"Food and drink. Now we ... !"

Arthur didn't need understanding it all. The happy grin spreading over Trindai's weatherbeaten face was explanation enough, and the four of them were soon busy eating and drinking, a joy needing no spoken words.

The bread was excellent, and the horseflesh, well at least it was better seasoned than the animals brought down by the escort. Hunting horse and six legged lizards, now that was another difference from Earth.

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