When they pulled their wagon out of town the next morning, they found the area outside the city gate a teeming mob of wagons, horses, and people. Dust was everywhere, and there were officers galloping around on horses, yelling at people, trying to organize the mob into a marching column. Jorac presented his orders to four different people before finding someone to tell him that his place was at the back of the column, and (sneeringly) to keep out of the way of real army men.
Eventually, they found the area that should become the back of the column. They parked the wagon, and Jorac asked Hox to spend some time rearranging the supplies. They’d packed in a hurry, and would want room to sleep inside the wagon in a few days. Outside of the weather-controlled area, it was spring, and they were heading toward the even cooler Northlands.
Meanwhile, Jorac walked around and checked out the nearby wagons. A few sported a large tag with an “O” that he learned meant “observer”; he was told he’d be issued one soon. The other wagons weren’t actually part of the army but were planning on following it. Jorac wandered among them, watching to people renew acquaintances from the year before and do last-minute loading. He saw some suspicious types who looked at him appraisingly, while others seemed to be friendly, salt-of-the-earth merchant types.
At one wagon, he met a fat, cheerful older woman who sold cooking oil and spices and had a greeting for everyone who walked by. She wasn’t doing much business, but it didn’t seem to worry her. Jorac’s rubbernecking attracted her attention.
“First time out, dearie?”
Jorac nodded. “I’m a new observer. Still trying to figure out how this whole thing works.”
“Well, come sit down and talk to me. You’re a nice-looking young man, and I don’t mind telling you what I know.” She smiled and patted the folding chair next to hers, so Jorac sat down gingerly.
“Relax,” she said, “we won’t start moving until this afternoon sometime, anyway. I’ll have no business today, but I’ll sell out in a week, and head on back.” She pointed around at the wagons in the area. “Lots of these folks will follow the army right north, all the way to the northern border, but not me. I don’t mind a week or two out of town, but not three weeks there, a bit less coming back empty.”
“The northern border? I thought that was way up at the cold, treeless country that no one much wants.”
The woman laughed a little. “Oh, you are new at this. Well, if you don’t mind listening to an old lady natter on, I’ll explain it. The army lets us follow until we get to the old northern border, not the current one. No one in Old Etrombia is fighting us, so it’s nice and safe. But once they get close to the town of Norfort they send the followers packing, and just the army folk go on from there.”
“And you say that takes three weeks? I could ride there in a week, or less if I pushed it.”
“The army never moves very fast, at least down south. You’ll see. Sometimes it’s the weather, or a bad section of road or something, but it’s always something. I turn back when they bunch up to cross the Japrees river; that’s about a week from now. Most of the other folks go further along; they just follow the Broxna river road, all the way to Norfort. The army supplies go by river barges, of course; it takes a lot to feed an army this size, but they get it done.”
“What sort of folks are here? I mean, what do they do, and why are they following the army?”
She started counting them off on her fingers. “Well, there’s the wives, of course. Some soldiers are married, but not so many. There’s rules against prostitutes, so there’s lots of ‘extra workers’ – cooks who can’t cook, laundry ladies who don’t wash, and so on. Real laundries for those without real wives. Armor sellers, sword makers, all sorts of soldierly crafts – the army has its own of course, but some soldiers will pay for something a bit fancier. Some folks sell talismans, good luck charms, and the like – they won’t sell much until the last day or two. A couple of wagons sell liquor, but they keep it quiet and package it like lotions and potions and such, because selling liquor to the regular soldiers is against the rules too.
“And a few like me, selling the things folks should have bought in town. Each day out I increase my prices a little, but it still sells. Oil is heavy and I can’t carry much, but I do alright with it. Up north they use mostly sheep-lard, and most city folks don’t like the flavor it gives, so they’re glad to pay me. And it makes for a nice little break from the shop each year.”
Jorac thought a moment. “You know, I’m not sure I brought enough oil either. I guess I should buy some while it’s still cheap.” He knew the sheep-lard flavor well, and didn’t miss it.
In good humor, she smiled. “Ha! The old sales trick worked. Tell you what, there’s a couple of cases I haven’t packed away yet. That one there – see if the lid is loose on it.”
It proved to be, and soon Jorac had exchanged two silvers for a large jug of cooking oil. She grinned and said, “I’ll be getting triple that in a week, and folks will be glad to pay me too.”
He thanked her and carried his purchase back to Hox, who said he was almost done arranging the wagon.
“Here you go, some extra cooking oil. How’s the wagon space looking?”
“I think it’ll work out fine. I can sleep across here, kind of diagonally, and I think you’ll fit across the back. I may want to get some more blankets or something to level it out.”
“Well, grab a handful of coppers and ask around the wagons back that way. They aren’t the army, they’re the army followers. Some of them remind me of the folks in Swampside, so watch yourself.”
Jorac busied himself making a place for the jug of oil, and watched the column gradually getting assembled. When Hox came back, he had some blankets under his arm and word of a recent acquaintance. “Madame Revar was asking for you.”
Jorac raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Did she say what for?” He didn’t think he had any business with the biggest lady pimp of Swampside. He hoped not, anyway.
“No, she just asked if you were around. She was trying to teach some of her girls how to do laundry. They were bending way over into the wash basin, and bouncing up and down. I thought any woman that age would already be taught to do laundry by their ma, but I guess not.” Hox’s eyes twinkled with knowing good humor. He played the country bumpkin well enough, but his understanding of city ways had grown tremendously in the few months he’d been a constable.
“Well, I better see what she wants. Are you okay here?”
“I’ll work on our beds. I saw some of the other Swampside types too, so one of us should stay with the wagon.”
“Yep, good idea, at least until we can find out how to get a guard we trust to watch our things. I won’t be too long. The oil seller told me we won’t be moving until this afternoon anyway.”
Madame Revar greeted Jorac with a false smile and camaraderie even more false. “How’s my favorite Constable?” Her Swampside accent was missing, he noticed.
Jorac nodded coolly. “Madame. What can I do for you?”
She tried to look hurt, but on her pinched face it looked more like indigestion. “Is that how you greet me? Merrie, Joy, meet Jorac. He was the one who had the idea for that nice party a couple of months back.”
One of them said, “Ooh, you didn’t say he was handsome, too!”, while the other just giggled.
Jorac folded his arms and nodded to the voluptuously smiling laundresses, then turned to their boss and said, “Miz Revar, did you want something? Or did you just want me to meet your, um, migrant workers?”
“Now Jorac, is that any way to act? I need to go back to town, but my friends here are going with the army, to wash clothes and the like. Ladies like this, out all alone, might want to know some strong man is looking after them. They’d be very grateful.”
“If I thought there was any chance you didn’t have someone watching them, and your coins, every minute of the day, I might take you more seriously. Would you care to get to the point, or are you just wasting my time?” Jorac turned a bit, as if to leave.
The old whore-mistress sighed and shook her head. “I might have known. We’ll do it your way. Palork! Come here! Bring ‘em all!” The Swampside accent was suddenly back.
At her call a greasy, short man came from behind the laundry wagon, with three more young, fairly attractive if hard-eyed ladies. “Jorac, Palork. He works for me, just keepin’ an eye on things. You don’ gotta worry about him doin’ nothin’ else. Palork, Jorac. He’s a constable, but he can keep his mouth shut if he wants to. He’s one of those too-damn-good ones, so don’t try nothin’ bent with him. Dere. Dat suit you?” She looked at Jorac challengingly.
Jorac didn’t like her much, but he had to admire her brass, and honesty. He gave her a half smile. “Better. But why are you telling me all of this?”
“Ask Jimsley, he be a kitchen scullion now. Or Kullo; he’s dead. You done dat inside a month. I needs to know what you doin’, so’s I stay outta de way, right?”
Jorac nodded, considering. His mission wasn’t a secret, but she didn’t need to know exactly what he was doing, so he said, “I’m not looking into the laundries, or any camp followers, okay? My business with the army is north of the old border. I don’t think we need to bother each other this trip.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Good enough. But if you change your mind, Palork wouldn’t mind some extra help keeping an eye on the ladies.” She turned to one of her stable. “Sweets, show Jorac here how you wash clothes, when they’re extra dirty.”
Jorac spent only a few seconds watching the young strumpet “accidentally” splash water on her ample bosom, turning the thin blouse she wore translucent, then bouncing and jiggling up and down as she rinsed some old clothes in a laundry barrel, performing a lascivious imitation of a normal laundry-woman’s task. Jorac chuckled and walked away smiling, and not without a few backward glances. Cute one, but Kimma is at home. Doesn’t hurt to look, though. . .
* * *
After he and Hox had a light lunch, Jorac killed some time by taking a little tour of the nearby wagons with the “O” tag on them. He thought he might find someone he could ask about the ins and outs of being an observer, but saw no one to talk to except one middle-aged man who was obviously drunk, even though it was barely past noon. So he gave up and went back to the wagon. He and Hox moved a few boxes, and found a place to hide a crossbow just behind the driver’s seat, and made a few other adjustments. He found himself increasingly impatient, and sternly told himself to relax and just let the day come to him. He was idling in the shade of his wagon when a dried-up, scarred old man on a sway-backed horse rode up and yelled, “Observers! To Me!”
After motioning Hox to stay with the wagon, Jorac went toward the man, joining people emerging from other wagons nearby. Five other men and one woman gathered and looked up at the rider.
“For those who don’t know, I’m Sergeant Zemak. I gotta ride ass-drag this week. You stay in front of me, and that rabble” – he pointed a thumb at the camp followers – “stays behind me. I got two badges for each of you. Put the big one on your wagon if it doesn’t already have one, and show the small one to the cook if you want to eat, or the supply master if you want standard stuff. Don’t get your hopes up too high there, if you catch my drift.
“There are some rules you gotta follow. They’re all written down on the papers I wrapped your badges in. Read it.” Then he pulled out a sack of small packets and began to read out the names on them. “Okay, Dembo, Laldo, Berich, here you go.” He clearly knew these people, and handed packets to the red-faced drunken man, a small somber man whose face was lined with frown lines, and a paunchy, bald man who immediately examined his badges carefully.
“Mistress Gompel. That’d be you,” he said, looking at the one woman. “The rest of you, let me know. Scholar Burnwright. . . Honorable Kellor. . . Mister Ekedior. . .” Jorac and the other two accepted their packets. “That’s it then. We should be ready to go in a few minutes. I’ll be back.” He turned away and walked back up the column.
Jorac thought he recognized the woman, and walked over to her. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”
She turned and glowered at him, and snarled, “I don’t think so.” She was quite good looking in her own way – short-haired and stocky, perhaps thirty years old, and like everyone else, dressed in trousers.
“Sorry, I guess that sounded rather trite. I didn’t mean it that way at all. Didn’t you used to play music with Robin and his group last year, at the northeast Fireday market? You played tambourine and hand drum, right, and sang a bit?”
She relaxed a bit, and said, “Yeah, that was me. That was year before last, I think. You like music?”
“I like the way you play it.” Her glower returned, and he quickly added. “Oh, damn, I did it again. I’m not trying to chat you up, honest. I just remember you playing there, and you were pretty good. I was a constable. I stopped there fairly often; your group drew a crowd and we had to watch things. Robin, he knew what he was doing, but you held the rest of them together – you kept them in time. Some nights I think you were the only sober musician there.”
She smiled a wry smile. “Some nights I think I was the only sober person in the whole town. I never liked drinking much. Anyway, that’s all over. Robin and me split up after a few months working there. Women trouble.”
Jorac said nothing, just raised one eyebrow.
“We both wanted the same birdie, and I won.” She stared at Jorac challengingly, seeming to dare him to disapprove.
Jorac grinned a crooked grin at her. “Ha! We have that in common – I like women too. Well met! I’m Jorac.” He extended his open hand to her.
Seeing Jorac’s reaction, she relaxed a little and shook his hand – she had a firm grip – and grinned back a bit. “Call me Nellie.”
“What are you doing here? Seems like a musician wouldn’t have much to do as an observer?”
“I’m working for a scholar who wants me to write down the army drinking songs – the bawdier, the better. He thinks because I’m a woman I’ll have a better chance to hear them. His money’s good, even if he’s a little crazy, and it sure beats juggling on a street corner to try to get some extra coin. Let alone take a real job.”
“Interesting. I know a few songs like that. Some evening I’ll see if you already know them. I probably have to be drinking myself to remember. Let’s see. . .” He named a couple of songs, and they talked about music for a bit. When Nellie finally seemed to be getting comfortable, he said, “Say, what do you know about the rest of this group? I got this job at the last minute, and don’t know much about the other observers, or being one myself. We seem to be an odd lot.”
“I was trying to figure that out when I was here last year. I decided there’s just two main types, scholars and remittance men.” Jorac must have looked puzzled at her second category, because she explained, “Those are the ones the family pays to stay away. They go down the coast to the islands in the winter, and up the river in the summer, or travel with the army. They’re the type that can’t be disowned, but can’t be kept around Vaggert either. I think that one” – she pointed over her shoulder and mimed drinking a bottle – “is one of those. The scholars are easier to spot; they ask so many questions. So that’s you, right?”
“Not exactly. I’m the Wizard Constable. Sort of a scout for the wizards, I guess.”
“Oh. You work for the wizards?” There was a hint of distrust in her tone, and Jorac didn’t blame her. Wizards were hard to trust.
“I’m afraid so. Remember what you said about the person who hired you? – the money is good, but he’s a little crazy? Well, replace that with dangerous and scary, and you’ll know what it’s like working for wizards. Better than walking a beat, though.”
“Yeah, I bet.” She shrugged. “This observer gig isn’t so bad. The regular army treats you like shit, but you can go anywhere and ask anything. The worst they can do is tell you to go away.” She stopped and looked around; some people nearby were starting to stir. “We better get ready now. Zemak said he’d be coming back soon. Talk to you later.”
Jorac went back to the wagon and told Hox about the scholars and remittance men. While they waited for Zemak, the two of them entertained themselves looking at the other observers’ wagons and trying to guess why they were here.
The “few minutes” Zemak had mentioned ran on and on, but by mid-afternoon they were finally on the road. The road here was wide and well kept, and the seven observer wagons went along in two columns, with Zemak at their rear. The whole gaggle of camp followers came behind him, and Jorac could sometimes see them jostling and yelling at each other since they had no Zemak to keep their wagons in line. They only went two or three hours before they found the groups in front of them halting and pulling off the road; it was late afternoon, not yet early evening. Zemak pointed the observers to an area inside the guard lines that were being set up, and disappeared. Their first day’s travel had ended.
Nellie parked her small wagon and turned her horses over to the army hostler (Jorac noticed her pass a few coins as well); then she hurried toward the main camp without unpacking anything. She paused just long enough for Jorac to introduce her to Hox, then went on her way, saying “Plenty of drinking this first night. I have to go – they’ll start singing early.”
Jorac and Hox found a level spot for their wagon and hailed the hostler, who told them the standard fee to take the horses, feed them, watch them, and deliver them back in the morning was four coppers each, since each man who handled the animal got a copper. It was technically against the rules to charge money for their care, but the hostler was open and matter-of-fact about the practice and its price.
Jorac paid eight coppers cheerfully enough, but he wondered what the broken rules said about the army. It seemed inefficient at best; from what he’d seen, it was no match for the tribesmen he’d gone to war with. But it was certainly big; despite the disorganization, they had enough troops to overwhelm any group of provincial rebels or desert tribes that could be assembled, so he supposed it served well enough. But the lax attitude still grated on him.
Jorac and Hox went through their supplies, selecting a few items to cook for their first meal. The small spirit-fueled stove Hox had bought was tested and found weak but serviceable, and they cooked an indifferent meal of pan-bread and fried meat. The plan was to normally use a metal fire-ring and cook their dinners over wood fires, but it was good to know that if it was raining they had an alternative. It was still early when they’d eaten, and they were curious about. . . well, everything.
A steady stream of young soldiers hurriedly passed their area, heading for the civilian area nearby; when they saw a pair of older soldiers moving more slowly, they got them to stop and talk for a minute. The pair were headed to the FAB (“Family Assigned Bivouac”), not the VAB (“Vendor Assigned Bivouac,” or “Vice And Bitches” as one of them called it). Apparently the mothers of the real families enforced some order in the setup process, ensuring that the vendors set up near the family area were legitimate, and that the gamblers and shady businesses like Madame Revar’s “laundry” were kept away from their children.
Jorac and Hox watched the traffic for a while, but soon grew tired of that. They took some time to make up their beds and finally crawled into them, but it was the first night out and the noises from the VAB area were loud. Jorac lay on his side and put a pillow over his top ear, resolving to try to set up further away from them the next night. It was late before they finally got to sleep, and the morning light came early, but though they lay in bed for some time and got ready rather slowly, they still had to wait more than an hour before Sergeant Zemak arrived and called to the group to move out.
The second day’s travel was much like the first, except they managed to leave by mid-morning. They encamped just as early, and Jorac and Hox found a vendor to buy a cooked meal from – Jorac wanted to hoard their supplies of food as best he could. The third day they left a little earlier in the morning – Jorac supposed the plan was to gradually accustom the army to a decent pace. But when they stopped even earlier in the afternoon, he decided he’d been wrong, and he was simply with the laziest army he’d ever heard of. He also noticed they always stopped far away from any towns along the road; he supposed the soldiers – and the V.A.B. – brought enough trouble with them.
The area they stopped at was near a small river, apparently the standard third day’s stop. Jorac and Hox each spent a little time shopping in the V.A.B. area, which was already growing familiar, while the other watched the wagon. After they’d cooked a simple dinner and cleaned up everything, it was still early. Jorac wanted to visit the army – they were here to observe them, after all. He told Hox, “I’m going to go find the fighting men. There must be some in this damned army, even if we haven’t seen them yet. I haven’t had any decent sword practice since I became Wizard Constable.”
Hox waved him away. “Let me know what you find. I’m going to dig into the food we just bought. A sweet, or bit of fruit would suit me.”
Jorac grinned at his companion and said, “Growing boy like you needs his nourishment. I’ll back before dark.”
Author/publisher update 3-May-2011:
Please buy, or encourage your friends to buy this book. It's on sale! E-books are just 99 cents, 99 pence, .99 euros, around the world!
This is now the final chapter on Neatorma. Sorry, but commercial considerations have reared their ugly head and I need to encourage people to buy my fine book.
Tom Van Natta
Jorac’s an ordinary city constable in the city of Vaggert; he’s allergic to magic but still takes the job of Wizard Constable, working for the city’s overbearing, officious wizards. He encounters cutthroats, slavers, poison frogs, crazed wizards, hidden beauty, and much more - this is not stereotypical “epic fantasy”, it’s a fast-paced, fun adventure story.
Visit http://www.wizardconstable.com/neatorama.html for an index to all posts for this book, maps and related info, and special prices for Neatorama readers.