Few fresh foods remained, but Taraval was able to buy a good supply of dried meat, cheese, and fruit. His greatest luck was in finding a new waterskin and a well worn but still serviceable pack to carry their supplies in, at considerably less cost than Philip Carbold had asked. He bought the waterskin immediately but decided to wait on the pack. A cape for Segway must come first; if he found one and still had some money left, he would return for the pack.
Half an hour later, he had inspected virtually everything offered for sale at the fair and had not found a cape. I must find one, he thought, an image of Segway’s shivering shoulders and blue lips in his mind. The sun was had very nearly disappeared and the last tradesmen were packing up when he noticed that a merchant with a display of cheap jewelry and trinkets had an old wool cape draped over a rack at the back of his booth and was wearing one that looked brand new.
The merchant approached Taraval with a wide smile on his face. “My good sir, how about a fine bracelet for your lady?” He held up one made of crudely carved and sloppily painted wooden beads.
There was a sudden faint thumping inside the lute. Taraval started and looked around in alarm, fearing he would encounter Joseph Pyncheon, the big-bellied stalker, or perhaps Philip Carbold himself. But seeing no one who appeared threatening, he patted the lute soothingly and readjusted the case on his shoulder, thinking he must have jostled the little wood nymph. When Featherbroom quieted down, he said to the merchant, “I’ve no need for bracelets, but I could use a cape. Would you be willing to sell me your extra one over there?”
The man looked at the cape dubiously, caressing his new one. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “The old one has plenty of wear left in it; I was planning to give it to my son.” Then he looked at the pile of still unsold jewelry on his counter and said, “But make me an offer.”
Taraval gave him a figure that allowed some room for bargaining and still left him enough money for the pack he had found, but the merchant shook his head vigorously. “No,” he said. “I couldn’t get my son another one anywhere near so low.”
By this time Segway and Lisa, who had been amusing themselves wandering among the booths, joined Taraval and began to browse through the jumble of gaudy trinkets on the merchant’s table.
“Segway,” said Taraval, “show this merchant your carving of Tressiter.”
“Yes, my lord.” Dutifully, Segway pulled out the piece and held it up for the merchant to see.
“We’ll add the carving to my offer,” Taraval said. He looked at Segway questioningly and the boy nodded.
“It’s an excellent piece, but it’s still not enough,” the merchant replied. “Have you any more of them?”
Segway emptied his pockets and produced two more carvings, a rabbit and a deer. The merchant turned them over in his hands, examining the workmanship, and finally nodded. Taraval paid the agreed on sum and the man gave him the cape. When Taraval handed it over to Segway, the boy’s eyes lit up.
“Oh, thank you m’lord!” he exclaimed, fastening the garment about his shoulders. “Lisa, look!”
“How warm it looks!” she said admiringly, rubbing the heavy wool between her fingers. “Now I won’t worry so about you traveling in the cold.” She favored the boy with a bright smile and then returned to looking through the merchant’s jewelry. She picked up the painted bead bracelet he had tried to entice Taraval to buy. After fingering it longingly for a moment, she slipped it onto her wrist.
Another flurry inside the lute made Taraval again survey the square nervously. But there were few customers remaining, and none of them faintly resembled his pursuers. Perhaps Featherbroom was merely tried after their long trek, he thought. By now he was accustomed to her shows of peevishness.
The merchant, taking in both Lisa’s absorption in the bracelet and the expression of mute adoration on Segway’s face, held up a matching necklace. “I bought a number of these in Crenera from a peddler who’d come down from Pelnor-on-the-River… or maybe it was Thorhaven,” he said to Segway. “Anyway, these two pieces are the last of them, so I’ll sell them to you cheap.”
Segway looked stricken. “I… I don’t have any more carvings with me,” he stammered.
“It’s all right, Segway, I don’t need a bracelet,” Lisa said, but he could see disappointment in her eyes.
Then he thought of his other gift to the girl. “Maybe he’ll take one of the hedgehogs,” he suggested.
She looked at him questioningly. “Are you sure you don’t mind, Segway?”
“I want you to have the bracelet,” he replied.
She smiled at him again and eagerly pulled out one of the hedgehogs with its removable coat. The merchant laughed on seeing Segway’s ingenious use of the chestnut husk. Charmed by the piece, he handed Lisa the bracelet. “If you’ve another one, I’ll throw in the necklace, too.”
“Go ahead,” said Segway. “You’ll still have on hedgehog left.”
The deal was concluded and Segway fastened the necklace around Lisa’s neck. She held out her arm to look at the bracelet. “Thank you, Segway,” she said, her eyes gleaming. “I’ve never had jewelry before.”
Taraval had watched the exchange, and was touched by the girls’ pleasure in the poorly made jewelry. When Lisa showed him the bracelet, however, he felt once more a small commotion in the lute. He ignored it for the present, giving Segway the money for the pack he had selected and sending him off with Lisa to make the purchase.
Turning back to the merchant, he said, “I heard you mention you’d been as far north as Crenera recently.” He pulled out the box with the ravenwood leaves and opened it. “Did you by chance see any trees along the way with leaves like this?”
The man squinted as he studied the leaves in the fading light, then a look of recognition relaxed his face. “As a matter of fact, I did see several groves of trees like that between here and Crenera,” he said. “But it’s strange that you should ask about them.”
“Why strange?” Taraval asked, a coldness creeping into his belly.
“Well, they were miles apart, but I noticed them because they all were starting to wilt, as if they were dying, and the leaves were turning black around the edges.”
The words struck Taraval like a blow. He felt his knees go weak.
“How far north did you see these withering trees?” he asked, barely able to keep his voice from breaking.
“I think the first was very near Crenera.”
At that moment Lisa walked up with Segway, who carried the pack he had purchased and was beaming with pleasure at recent events. But when the boy saw the despair on Taraval’s face, his smile faded; it was twice now in three days that he had witnessed that look.
“My lord, is it something about the ravenwoods?”
“Let’s head back to the cottage,” Taraval replied despondently. “I’ll tell you on the way.”
They took their leave of the merchant and Taraval told his companions what he’d learned as the three of them trudged up the hill.
“The blight is already far ahead of us, Segway – the tree we found was just slow in showing it.” Having delivered this depressing news, he lapsed into thought. If the ravenwood trees were all dead, Ilahee was doomed. And even if the kingdom could be saved, he was doomed. An image flashed into his mind of Gretchen in her mustard yellow dress, jeering at him – “Rag-Tag, Prince of Patches” – and a black gloom closed over him.