Sir Oliver leaned back in the saddle and looked about. They were still in open country. Pleasantly rounded little hills stretched on the left for many miles. On the right, a swift-moving stream sparkled.
Ahead he could already see the outlying clumps of big trees that marked the start of the forest.
But there was something else, something that moved, a dot of red, coming down from the hills, coming down to intercept the road half a mile ahead of the pilgrimage train.
Mother Joanna rode up beside him on her well-trained bay. "What is the matter?" she asked. "Why have we stopped?"
Sir Oliver said, "I want to take a look at the territory before we plunge into it."
"What on Earth could you hope to see?" Joanna asked.
"I am looking for some sign of the bandits that are said to infest these parts," Oliver said.
"We already have our protection," Joanna said. "Those four crossbowmen who are feeding from our provisions."
"I don't entirely trust them," Oliver said. "Fellows like that are apt to run at the first sign of trouble. I want to see if the trouble presents itself first."
"That is ridiculous," Joanna said. "A thousand score bandits could be hiding just a few feet away in the greenwood and we'd never see them until they wanted us to."
"I'm taking a look anyway," Oliver said stubbornly. "There is someone up ahead."
Joanna peered at the road. Inclined to nearsighted- ness, it took her a while to identify the red dot as a man.
"Where did that fellow come from?" she asked, half to herself.
"I do not know," Sir Oliver said. "But he is coming toward us, so perhaps we shall learn."
The pilgrims were not an entirely happy group. In Paris they had argued one entire evening about the route they would take to Venice. Some had been in favor of avoiding the mountains altogether and taking the easy way through the heart of France, but the English were making trouble again. Even if you were English, that route was to be avoided.
Most of the pilgrims had favored a more easterly route, through Burgundy and then down the western bank of the Rhone until they reached the dark forests of Languedoc, and came through them to Roussillon. This view had prevailed. Thus far there had been no incidents, but they stayed on their guard, for anything might happen in this accursed country.
The single horseman rode toward them at a smart trot. The fellow wore a scarlet doublet, and from his shoulders flowed a cloak of dark red fabric highlighted with threads of purple. He wore soft brown leather boots, and on his head a green felt cap from which floated a single eagle's feather. He rode up to them and pulled his horse to a stop.
"Good afternoon!" Azzie cried, introducing himself as Antonio Crespi, a Venetian. "I am a merchant of Venice," he said, "and I travel throughout Europe selling our fine Venetian cloth of gold, especially to merchants in the north. Allow me to show you some samples."
Azzie had prepared for this by obtaining samples from a real Venetian merchant whom he had sent home clothless but happy with his bag of red gold.
Sir Oliver inquired as to where Sir Antonio had come from, appearing as it seemed out of nowhere.
Azzie told him he had taken a shortcut that had cut many miles off his trip. "I travel all the time between Venice and Paris, and it would be strange indeed if I didn't know the shortcuts and the safest routes."
Azzie smiled in his most affable way. "Sir, if it is not too bold of me to ask, I'd like to join your company.
A single traveler alone takes his life in his hands in these parts. I could do your company some good, lending you the use of my sword if need be, and acting as a guide for some of the trickier parts of the journey yet to come. I have my own provisions, and would be no trouble to you at all."
Oliver looked at Joanna. "What do you think, Mother Joanna?"
She looked Azzie up and down. A hard, critical look. Azzie, who had been stared at by many, leaned back at ease, one hand on the rump of his horse. If they didn't take him on as a member of the pilgrimage, he was sure he'd come up with another scheme. Ingenuity at getting one's own way was one of the hallmarks of Hell.
"I see no objection," Joanna said at last.
They rode back to the wagons, and Oliver made the introductions. Azzie took up a position at the head of the column, his by right since he claimed knowledge of the country hereabouts. Sir Oliver rode with him for a while.
"What lies ahead in this immediate vicinity?" Oliver asked.
Both Oliver and Joanna were cheered by this news. It was comforting to know a good meal and a warm bed lay ahead. And Antonio was already proving himself an amusing companion. The young red-haired merchant had many stories to tell about life in Venice at the court of the Doge. Some of his stories were a little strange, and some were downright scurrilous, but that made them all the more amusing. Some had to do with the odd ways of demons and devils, who were said to visit Venice more than most places.
And so the long slow day passed. The sun crept across the sky, in no rush to complete its appointed rounds. Little white clouds moved like airy ships bound for the ports of the sunset. Breezes ruffled the treetops. The pilgrims moved at a walk, picking their way along the overgrown forest track, not hurrying because there was no rushing a day that crept along with the deliberation of eternity.
Utterly, preternaturally still was that forest. There was no sound except the jingle of the harnesses, and occasionally a crossbowman's voice raised in song. At last the sun reached its zenith and began its slow sleepy descent down the other side of the sky.
The caravan continued moving deeper and deeper into the great forest, where the brilliance of the day was dappled with green leafy shadows. The pilgrims in the coaches began nodding off to sleep, and those on horseback drooped over their reins. A doe ran in front of the foremost horses and disappeared with a soft explosion of brown and white and tan into the foliage on the far side of the track. Mother Joanna gave a start but couldn't summon the energy to give chase. All nature, as well as the people passing through it, seemed under the forest's mild enchantment.
Things continued in this way until evening was almost upon them. Then, finding a flat well-grassed little clearing, Azzie declared that it would be a good idea to stop here for the night, as the country ahead was more broken and difficult. The pilgrims were happy to follow his suggestion.
Footmen unhitched the horses and watered them at a little stream nearby. The pilgrims got out of the coaches; those who were riding dismounted and tied up their horses. The adults found or fixed up likely places to sleep for the night while the children, led by Puss, began a game of tag.
Azzie and Sir Oliver walked to the edge of the woods, where a fallen oak made a natural firebreak. They gathered twigs and branches, and then Oliver bent down and applied flint and tinder. He had never been particularly good at the job of fire making, but no one else seemed to be doing it and he didn't want to ask Sir Antonio.
The sparks flew into the dry tinder, but they snuffed out almost immediately. The Devil's own breeze ran along the forest floor, contrary to the usual way of things. Oliver tried again and again, but the malicious little wind blew out his efforts. He was having difficulty even getting the stone to strike. The harder he tried, the less effective he was. The breeze on the forest floor was acting almost as if it had a mind of its own: when Oliver finally got a little fire going, a sudden puff of wind from a different direction extinguished it.
He stood up swearing, trying to ease his aching knees. Azzie said, "Perhaps you will permit me to do that for O" you!
Azzie waved it aside, rubbed the forefinger of his right hand with the palm of his left, then pointed his forefinger at the tinder. A small bolt of blue lightning flew from his finger to the tinder, remained there a moment, then went out. When it disappeared, a merry little flame was burning before them. No breeze blew it out. It was as if the wind knew its master.
Sir Oliver tried to speak, but no words came.
"Didn't mean to startle you," Azzie said. "Just a little trick I learned in the Orient."
He looked at Sir Oliver, and Oliver noticed tiny red flames dancing in his pupils.
Azzie turned and strolled back to the coaches.