Historical Fantasy Adventure - Second book in the Swords & Stones Series (66,600 words).
Ancient stone circles. Racing chariots. Slashing swords and thrown knives. One man and his wives travel through the Roman Empire, living in a wagon, their life guided by the ancient gods. Easy to read fantasy stories of the group’s travels and adventures as they explore different lands and different peoples. In this story the crew repair fallen stone rings, attend a Barbarian wedding, race chariots in the Circus and have an encounter with wild wolves that leaves them with a new member of their crew.
It didn’t matter the time or season, all the girls agreed that Mustapha’s house was the best home in the Empire. Filled with warmth and welcome that poured out the weathered timber front door, through the courtyard with its whitewashed walls and creaking gate that marked the end of this sanctuary and its opening to the road. One mention of visiting Mustapha transported Cal to sit in that courtyard, the sound of women engaged in happy verbal battles around the cooking fire inside while he talked truths to the one man he knew he could trust more than any other.
This visit he was not looking forward to. The house would be the same, it hardly seemed to change, although maybe it was mellowing a little as more of Mustapha’s children grew. Everyone was getting older. Mustapha’s hair couldn’t get any whiter, but it was not that. How much did he really know? That was the question.
“Everyone get ready,” Cal yelled to the crew who seemed more interested in gossiping to Maree in the warehouse. “Three freight wagons.”
“Four would be better,” Sara yelled back. At least someone had heard.
“Four then, but hurry.”
Cal really preferred they took three. Four wagons and eight women usually meant he was left to drive the home wagon alone.
“We’re nearly ready,” Helga said when he looked at her.
“Miena’s a bit slow today,” Heidi, her twin said.
It should be an easy trip. Most of the snow should be gone and the mountain winds were turning to gentle spring breezes. The wagons finally started to roll. Sara and Ava first, then the twins, then Ameena and Nerrina and last Karli, driving by herself.
“You try hurrying Miena,” Karli said as she passed Cal at the gate. At least he knew he had company for the first leg of the trip. He found Miena still inside the warehouse talking to Maree.
“The rest have gone,” Cal said gently. He knew what was on her mind.
“We were just settling orders,” Maree said.
“We’ll talk on the way,” Cal said, taking hold of Miena’s free hand, her turning to look at him. “We’ll sort it out,” he said softly.
“Go now, things will work out well,” Maree said as Cal was able to lead his boss wife out back to where the home wagon waited, Cal helping her up to the driving seat.
“I’ll drive, you talk,” he said walking to the other side and joining her on the seat.
“Where’s the others?” Miena asked looking round the now empty yard as though for the first time.
“Half way there by now, Sara will have them all racing.” That didn’t even bring a smile. Both silent until they cleared the town walls and open country was either side of them.
“So many changes since we last saw your father,” Cal said. “You were just a trader’s wife last visit. Now, you’re the head priestess of stone.”
“I’m still a trader’s wife,” Miena said, looking at Cal.
“You’re still the best boss wife any trader could ever have,” Cal said, shuffling closer to her and putting an arm around her waist.
“Maybe I should drive,” Miena said.
“If you want to drive you’ll need to sit on my lap first.” Miena reached for the reins and moved herself to sit on Cal’s lap leaving him free to wrap both his arms around her. Her long black hair always smelled of exotic spices. “I’m not sure what to say to him,” she said, keeping her gaze ahead so Cal couldn’t see her eyes.
“Just give him a tiny hint and see where it goes. I trust him completely.”
“As much as Maree?”
“More. Nearly as much as I trust you girls.”
“How much should I tell him if he knows?”
“As much as you feel comfortable with.”
“What if he really doesn’t know?”
“We’ll make another story, you’re good at that.” He could feel her body relax a little as they spoke. They caught up with the others much sooner than Cal expected.
“I got Sara to stop in case you needed help,” Ava said when they approached the four wagons parked on the road side.
“They’re cuddling, they don’t need any help. Let’s race again,” Sara yelled.
“What about the horses?” Miena said.
“They enjoy racing too,” Sara said. “First to the next campsite gets first choice of the sweets.”
“I didn’t get any sweets,” Cal said laughing as the four freight wagons charged off along the road.
The nervousness spread. On the day Virunum came in sight, everyone seemed on edge. Cal decided a fast run to their yard, then a quick visit to Mustapha would be the best course of action. Better to get it over with quickly. Sara led the charge into town, scaring a few people on the road with the speed. Horses parked in their yard and women dressed in good clothes in record time. Enthusiasm slackened the closer they got to Mustapha’s metal factory. Cal was left out front with a straggle of women behind.
“Welcome, welcome, it’s been a while since you were here,” Mustapha said as Cal came through the factory door. “You all look very serious for visiting. Trouble?”
“No, just trying to make sense of some ancient things,” Cal said, the rest quiet for once.
“Ahhh, the old ways. They have a certain power, don’t they?”
“They certainly do.”
“My boss priestess still bossy?”
“She’s the best boss priestess ever,” Sara said, warming to the occasion.
“And you’re still the loudest warrior priestess ever,” Mustapha said with a laugh.
“I am too,” Sara said.
“How long have you known?” Miena asked her father.
“A few weeks before I first saw Sara. The goddess herself spoke to me in dream and I saw you with them too, always the boss.”
“You never said before,” Miena said.
“Too dangerous. I had to be sure you would be safe.”
“She’s safe now she has us to guard her, we’ll never let her be harmed,” Sara said. Miena hugging her father.
“What about others here, how many know?” Cal asked.
“Every trader you deal with will know or suspect a little, but not all are committed to the old ways, Rome’s influence has grown over the years. Best to keep silent, even with me, some things you should never speak of.” A thick silence filled the room. “It is not an easy life. I see you want to tell me things, and I would love to know, but for all our safety, just stories about your travels are best. Sara’s stories are always good, even with me, they are the best,” Mustapha said.
“My stories are really good, aren’t they?” Sara said, warming to the compliment.
“Have you swam any wild rivers lately?” Mustapha asked.
“Only one. We didn’t have time to do anything exciting cause we had to rush back, Barbarians everywhere ready to slice us in two. We swam real fast,” Sara said. Mustapha was laughing.
“Stock for your father?” Cal turned to ask Ava.
Miena heard and slipped back into her boss wife mode, gathering Ava and started deciding an order.
“Business is strong in her blood,” Mustapha said with pride.
“It’s our best story,” Cal said.
“It’s a story that has done you well so far.”
“I hope it keeps working.”
“I could feel the knife,” Mustapha whispered into Cal’s ear as the rest discussed orders. “I hope they never have to use them.”
“She won’t,” he said.
Ava and Miena had decided they would buy a wagon load of goods from Mustapha, and agreed to pick them up in the morning.
“Supper at my home,” Mustapha said as they made to leave.
“We’ll bring sweets,” Sara said.
“Can we look at my brother’s land?” Ameena asked once they were outside, Ameena leading them to where she thought her brother Darrius had brought land. There were builders at work making a compound wall. Ameena asked, and yes, it was the right place, a large area of land being enclosed to form a private compound and chariot race track.
“Can we give them a chariot when the walls are finished?” Sara asked.
It was Miena who answered. “I think that’s a great idea. Maybe we could send them to Maxim’s in Ancona to pick their own.”
“We need to get sweets for tonight,” Sara said, meaning now would be best in case any needed testing, so they started walking towards their second most favourite destination in town.
“Another wife?” The sweet shop lady said as everyone crowded her counter looking for their favourite treat.
“Karli’s helping us with some of the stock,” Helga said before anyone else started.
“She’ll need an assortment to know what’s best,” Cal said.
It was one bag each for now and a larger bag for tonight and nearly half an hour before they were back walking the street, everyone chewing.
“Are there stones around here?” Ava asked. It caused a sharp halt in walking, such an obvious question that hadn’t been asked before. Miena did her thinking.
“Rather a lot. One very close, we could walk there now.”
“Lead on boss priestess,” Sara said loud enough for Cal to turn to check if anyone else had heard.
It was very close, right in town, inside an area set aside for a park. Twelve large and low carved stones set in a circle that would pass as a set of seats around a fire pit if there had been a fire pit.
“It’s a power ring,” Miena said as she examined each stone. By the amount of lichens and mosses growing over them, it seemed that no one had any use of it for many years.
“We could sit on them and no one would know,” Ava said.
“They’d see us naked,” Sara said.
“They wouldn’t know if we just lifted our dresses and put our bums on the stones,” Karli said.
“Find your stone,” Miena said. A rush to select stones, and Cal watched eight women discreetly sit with bums bare against the cold stone. It was harder for him, but he hoped he managed to look normal to any passersby. He was last, so as soon as he sat the energy flow started, energy flowing through the stone and through him, not as powerful as others but strong enough to make him feel really good. When it stopped, and they all stood up, Cal saw each of the girl’s stones had a wet patch.
“We left a little bit of our smell,” Sara said, a cheeky grin on her face.
“So witchy,” Nerrina said.
“Could we bring my father here?” Miena asked.
“I’ll go and get him,” Sara yelled and started racing off.
“I’ll help,” Ava said and followed running to catch up.
“We’ll wait here then,” Cal said into thin air, those left wandering around near the stones, passing sweets to munch while they waited.
“They’re coming,” Karli said. Cal turned to see Mustapha being dragged forward, one girl on each arm towing him.
“They said… I had…. to come,” he managed to get out, breathing heavily from the fast walk. “I’m not… as young… as you.”
“Father, sit down and have a rest,” Miena said, taking Mustapha’s hand. “I’ll help you find the best seat.”
Cal watched her select a stone for her father and encouraged him to arrange his clothes to bare his bum.
“It’s cold and a bit wet,” he said.
Cal heard several sniggers, and Sara saying quietly, “That was my stone.”
Everyone took position, and the power started again, all eyes now fixed on Mustapha. Cal saw his face change from exhaustion to total pleasure, his mouth opened, eyes staring wide. Cal felt that he was getting most of the energy, and maybe something else too, it went on a long time, much more than before with only them. When it stopped, his face still held the expression, the rest stood up and clustered around him.
“Are you all right father?” Miena asked.
Her words brought him back, blinking and looking around. “What a gift. What a gift,” he finally said.
“Did she talk to you?” Miena asked.
“The goddess herself spoke to me. What a gift.”
Miena helped him up and they all started walking away, walking with him back to his workshop, hearing, “What a gift,” muttered over and over, finally leaving him to himself they walked to his house to talk with the rest of the family.
“Only normal here,” Miena reminded as they came close. Women inside, and Cal in the courtyard to wait for Mustapha. The usual shrieks and yells coming from the house as the women discussed women’s things. The creak of the gate bringing Cal alive.
“I couldn’t work. Far too excited. What a gift you’ve all given me. What a gift.” Cal had never seen Mustapha so excited, he’d always seemed considered and restrained before.
“Can I ask what exactly you got at the stones?” Cal asked.
“The goddess showed me part of your work, part of what you will do and how my precious Miena will grow. She told me it was only for me though.”
“That’s true, it’s how we keep safe. I’m glad you like it.”
“It’s the best a father could ever wish.”
“Shown anything to help your own work?”
“A few things. Strange things. I’m sure I’ll work out what they mean eventually. You’re so lucky to do that all the time.”
“We do it often, but don’t get told much, just enough to keep us from too much trouble.”
“I can see that’s how it has to be. I also see that you accept that too.”
“I do. So many good things to enjoy now.”
“I see there are now eight of those good things, you must be worn out.”
“But happy,” Cal said, and they both laughed loudly.
“They’re both outside,” Sara yelled.
They’d been found. Inside now, and pulled into Sara and Ava’s stories. Safe stories. Sanitised stories. Family stories. Meal enjoyed. Sweets eaten. Good-night’s said. Not until they were all snuggling back in their own wagon home did they feel safe enough to talk.
“Did my father tell you what he saw?” Miena asked.
“Only a little. It was about our future, you mainly. He was very happy with what he saw and very proud of what you became, he didn’t tell me details though.”
“We’re all proud of you too,” Ava said.
“I think you should cuddle her all night now,” Sara said to Cal, and they all settled down for the night, Miena gently cradled in Cal’s arms.