Quips Quillian stared up at the towering ironwood pine in open-mouthed astonishment. This was his first mistake.
His second followed a moment later when he actually made a sound.
"Sky a-bove!" he hugged the armload of fruit closer to his chest and tried to fathom the dimensions of this thing in front of him. Back in Undertown you got the occasional tree, spindly little things that didn't reach much higher than the buildings. They got a bit bigger out on the mire, but not like this. Nothing like this!
In fact, all around him the Deepwoods exuded a sense of incredible… deepness. Dark and dense, and sweeping outward and upward as if they went on for absolutely ever in all directions. He felt like a lemkin creeping around a League palace. Absently, he tried to work out how many people would have to stand hand-to-hand in order to encircle the tree, stumbling along the base of the ironwood as he did so.
Well I mean to say. One does not stumble along in the Deepwoods for very long without attracting the wrong kind of attention. However, as this is a lesson that everyone must learn at some point in their life, we should try to be understanding. He is after all a city slicker.
Quips finally became aware of a rustling sound behind him, and it's a good thing he did. Suddenly terrified, he whirled around in time to see several innocuous-looking balls of orange death hop out of the underbrush and into his immediate vicinity.
"Oh!" he clutched the armload of fruit tightly as if it would offer some sort of protection, and took to his heels.
Apitica Quillian sat down in the little folding chair in front of the newly-started fire. She was getting good at this stuff! It had only taken her fifteen minutes of work at the flint before she'd been able to get a spark.
She drummed her fingers on her knees. Now what? They still had water from their last stop, and they'd be sleeping in the Swoop, so those things didn't need tending to. She looked over at the little barge critically. Were all the tethers tight? Had she remembered to close the furnace? Maybe she should check the hull for barnacles.
Actually she was kind of worried about the furnace. Standing up, she was about to step onto the gangplank when she heard a shout from the woods.
"Quips?" She called back.
"Wig-wigs!" came the voice again, closer this time.
"It sounds like you're saying 'wig-wigs.'"
"Get into the Swoop!" Quips came crashing into the clearing, vaulting over roots and rocks with an accuracy born of mania. Hot on his heels was a heaving mass of slightly-less-innocuous-looking orange death. Apitica charged backward up the gangplank and fell over onto the deck.
Fortunately for all concerned, the fire startled the wig-wigs and gave Quips a bit of headway. He was up the gangplank in two steps. Only then did he drop the fruit, bruised and squashed, having stained his tunic a nice red color across the chest and arms.
"You're hurt!" Apitica jumped back to her feet.
"I'm fine, start the furnace!" He was already pulling up the gangplank as the wig-wigs gathered for another advance.
Apitica was rather annoyed to discover that the furnace door was indeed still open. She had no time to pull on the gloves, so she just grabbed them like pot-holders and pulled out the hot iron rods. She was about to plunge them into the scree chamber, when she remembered the excellent job she'd done earlier of tethering the ship to the ground.
"I'm cutting them."
"But we need the ropes!"
"We need going up! We need up! We need to go up!" Quips descended into babbling, sawing harder with his knife as wig-wigs started to hurl themselves at the side of the barge and a few of them grabbed onto the ropes with their teeth.
His rope snapped, dropping several wig-wigs back to the ground. He ran over to the next rope and started working.
Apitica thrust the rods back into the furnace and quick-stepped over to stern to start on the ropes back there. No sense lifting the ship until all the ropes were cut.
"Too many ropes!" Quips ran back to join her and started working on the last one next to her. By this time a few of the wig-wigs had managed to get as far as the gunwale, and were starting to claw their way over the side.
As the last rope snapped, Apitica turned and ran for the furnace. Using her coat pockets as gloves this time, she grabbed the rods and yanked them out, plunging them into the scree chamber for all she was worth.
The little barge juddered and listed, but started rising into the air. Quips managed to maintain his balance, but Apitica was thrown from her feet.
Landing heavily on the deck, she found herself facing four of the least innocuous-looking balls of orange death she'd ever had the misfortune to face.
There were only four wig-wigs that had made it on board, and there were only four feet separating them from Apitica. She cried out and covered her head, expecting at any moment to feel approximately two hundred little teeth tearing into her body. (I counted)
Instead she felt four soft but disconcerting little bounces across her back, and looked up to see that they had merely jumped over her as if she'd been no more interesting that a fallen log. They were making for Quips.
"Quips!" she lunged out and grabbed one of the fruits that was rolling around nearby. She pitched it at the wig-wigs and hit the one in front with deadly accuracy. It rolled over to the side of the ship, stunned or dead. She stood up and grabbed one of the cooling rods. Quips meanwhile was trying to keep some distance between himself and his attackers, but the barge was only so big.
One of the remaining wig-wigs made a dive for Quips, but overshot him by a good two feet, to be followed immediately thereafter by another hundred or so feet. As a point of interest it landed directly on the folding chair, absolutely dead.
Apitica came in swinging at the last two, and managed to connect with one, sweeping it over the side of the ship. The last one was smart and leapt low. It got its teeth into Quips' right boot and clamped down hard.
"It's on me!"
"Aaugh!" Apitica started whacking the creature vigorously.
"Ow! Ow! Ow!" Quips hopped backward out of range.
"It's still on my leg!"
"I'm trying to get it off."
"No, my boot is still on my leg!"
"Well take it off and throw it over the side!"
There was no time to dither reluctantly, Quips stripped off his right boot in a matter of moments. The next thing the wig-wig knew was the total exhilaration of flying.
They watched it go.
"Great, I've lost a boot." Quavered Quips.
"And I've lost a chair." Apitica sat down shakily.
"And we've lost a lot of rope." Quips giggled.
"Don't giggle." Apitica giggled.
"But at least we've gained some fruit!"
They both tittered hysterically for a few minutes, clinging to each other.
"And a dead wig-wig!" Apitica pointed to where it lay along the gunwale.
They started at it in silence. Finally Quips went over and plipped it over the side. He came back and helped Apitica to her feet. Her face was covered with tears. It made him realize that his was too.
"Well," he said, wiping his face with a juice-stained and sticky sleeve, "I think we're both pretty good in a crisis."
That night they tethered their ship to the top of an Ironwood pine, being as they were a tad reluctant to tether it to the ground again. Quips and Pit lay out on the deck in their sleeping wraps, staring up at the stars.
"This isn't working."
Quips' heart sank. What wasn't working? Their voyage? Their plans? Their… marriage?
"We need a guide." Pit continued. "Neither of us knows anything about the Deepwoods and if we continue like this we're going to get ourselves killed."
Quips was relieved. "Nonesense! It's been three days since we left the quay, and we haven't had a single incident until that one this afternoon."
"Exactly. We almost died on our third day away from the city. Maybe your mother was right, we won't last a week on our own out here."
Quips reached across and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "Of course we will. And longer even. You've got your barkscrolls to tell us what to do, and I can climb trees and run pretty fast. Come on Pit, we're out here to do important work! Nobody else on the Edge is providing a service like this. Already we've got a sack in the hold full of letters and packages from the good people of Undertown that need to go to their families and friends out here in the wide world. We can't disappoint them can we?"
"I'm not saying we should give up!" Pit sighed in frustration, rolling over to face him. "I'm saying we need to find a guide!"
"A guide." Quips wasn't too hot on the idea. A guide would require a salary and feeding and a place to sleep. The swoop was small enough as it was. "I don't know Pit, could we afford to keep a guide?"
"Yes. You know we could."
"Where would he sleep?"
"We could get a small one. Maybe one of those Woodelves. I understand they really know their forest lore, and they come with their own caternests for living in."
"But come on, where are we going to find a Woodelf guide? We're nowhere near Woodelf territory yet."
They lapsed into silence for a while because Quips' statement was true enough.
"There's always… the Market."
"You did not just say that." Quips scowled up at the stars.
"Well, why not?"
Quips was overcome with so many reasons why not that his mouth could not decide on one of them and he just raised his arms and sputtered earnestly for a bit.
"No no, I mean it." Apitica propped herself up on her elbows and looked at him. "It's a terrible place. It's cruel and vile and arbitrary."
"And wouldn't it be a splendid thing to rescue at least one person from that kind of nightmare? One little person, who might even happen to come with their own caternest? Think what kind of fate someone like that might face on the auction block, when by comparison we could be there to offer them freedom, friendship, and an honest job."
"Ughhh." Quips dropped his head back on his pillow and pressed his palms into his eyes. The Shryke Slave Market had always held a particular horror for him, ever since his Dad had first told him about it as a little kid. He'd grown up with this image of Shrykes as being the purest form of evil, and an almost irrational fear of the Market itself as being a big trap just waiting to spring on him if the moment ever came that he set one foot on its planking.
Perhaps sensing this, Pit proceeded with another argument.
"Look, thousands of people, maybe millions, do legitimate business with the Slave Market every year. There's other stuff there besides slaves you know; it's a good place to reprovision during a long voyage, or for drovesmen to buy and sell hammelhorns, and it's full of vendors selling all sorts of things. I had a Gabtroll nanny once who used to have a tea cart in the Market every other Summer for a few weeks, and she made a mint."
Quips didn't lift his palms. "You just got finished saying what a terrible nightmarish place it was, and now you're saying there's nothing to worry about?"
"There is nothing to worry about, not for us." Pit reached across and started to massage his head. "What would be the chances of something bad happening to us, out of the thousands of other people who'd be there? As long as we had our cockades on no one would give us a second glance."
Quips sighed and let his arms flop down at his sides.
"We'll talk about this in the morning."
Pit's mind was feeling a little easier with the thought that they would soon have a guide, and she quickly slipped into a peaceful slumber. Quips tossed and turned all night and dreamt about large talons.