One of the highlights of the companions' sojourn on the farm was a visit to the marketplace in the nearby town of Alnwick. On market day, everyone was up very early, even by farming standards. The three young men staggered bleary-eyed around the farmyard, well before dawn, struggling to make everything ready for the journey. Finally, the last loading of the wagons was completed, and the farm hands were able to partake of a quick breakfast of sweetened porridge and mugs of tea before setting off.
It was a long, slow journey, walking at a snail's pace alongside the farm carts, driving the herd of cattle before them. It was also thirsty labour, toiling up and down the hills on the winding and dusty trails, necessitating frequent drinks from the water flasks they had remembered to bring with them.
"This is hard work," moaned Tom, as he attempted to persuade the cows along the correct route with the aid of a stick he had cut from the hedgerow earlier. The cows seemed in no mood to be rushed, and ambled along at their own pace regardless of Tom's ministrations.
"Don't worry," said Alistair cheerfully, "It'll be easier on the way back. We won't have the cattle, and there'll probably be more space in the wagons, so we can ride in comfort on the return journey."
Tom was not entirely sure that the definition of a "comfortable ride" included sitting in the back of a horse-drawn cart on a country road, but said nothing. Just at that moment, they crested the rise of a hill, and could see the town laid out below them. From their vantage-point, they could also see over to their left the plume of dust put up by another caravan converging on the market.
The market square at Alnwick was not really a square at all, more a linked series of irregular spaces surrounded by ancient stone buildings. Their first task was to herd the cattle to the stock pens which, naturally enough, were located right at one end of the market and close to most of the major routes.
A principal reason for the existence of the Alnwick market at all was the cattle auction. This provided an opportunity for this season's calves to be sold representing, Alistair had told Tom, a significant part of the farm's income. Other animals were also being offered for sale - sheep and lambs from other farms, as well as several runs full of squealing piglets. There seemed to be plenty of buyers standing around, carefully inspecting the livestock for sale and sucking contemplatively on their pipes and cigarettes.
John the farmer rapidly conducted his business with the auctioneer. Tom formed the opinion that the two men were old acquaintances, or perhaps sparing partners, but their encounter today passed off amicably enough. Once business was completed, there was an opportunity for Tom and the others to depart to explore the town, with an admonishment to meet back at the stock pens by five o'clock that evening.
The centre of the market was the old guild hall, a tall and square building with stone arches providing covered walkways on every side. The different parts of the market were laid out in all directions, and the companions were unsure which way to head.
"Let's go this way," Bram suggested, indicating a large open area crowded with stalls.
Alistair and Tom looked at each other, and shrugged.
"Lead on, then," Tom said.
The market area was not flat, either, but quite uneven and fairly steeply sloping in some places. The stone cobbles were unexpectedly slippery underfoot, especially where the natural side-effects of well-fed animals and ripe - or even over-ripe - vegetables were to be found.
The companions carefully made their way though the narrow passageways between the booths. This area was populated by stalls offering groceries of all kinds. Some presented arrays of locally-grown produce, with fine-looking vegetable specimens on every side. Others offered a medley of fruit, including items clearly imported from overseas such as oranges and bananas, which were an unheard-of luxury in War-time England.
Elsewhere, numerous butchers were offering a wide variety of meats and several fish merchants, each competing with the others to show the most prolific displays of iced fish. And it was so noisy! All the vendors were loudly hawking their wares at the tops of their voices, and Tom could hardly hear himself think. In spite of the delightful profusion of produce on display, the stall holders still appeared to be rigorously checking the ration coupons from the books presented by their customers.
As the companions moved onwards, they encountered a section of the market which housed travellers and tinkers of all kinds. One wizened old man had a treadle-driven grindstone attached to a barrow, which he could use to wheel the contraption around from place to place. His sing-song voice kept up a constant litany of invitations and imprecations to the passing crowd, of the form "Knives sharpened" and "Sharpen your penknife, Sir?" interspersed with "Thanking you kindly, Ma'am" and "That'll be no'but a ha'penny".
Alistair, who prided himself on being able to get an exceptionally keen edge on any sharp instrument, tutted disapprovingly at the offer to sharpen his pocket-knife. He glared at the little tinker, much to Bram's amusement, and then pushed on ahead.
"Don't you want him to sharpen your knife?" Tom asked, skipping forward to catch up.
Alistair shook his head, eloquently.
"Over my dead body. A grindstone like that makes far too uneven a cut, too coarse and misshapen. To get a knife really sharp, you need to use a curved whetstone, and with great care and delicacy I'll have youknow. A knife just won't stay sharp after such a rough treatment, and it takes ages to get a good edge on a blade again."
Despite Alistair's misgivings, there were a fair number of people waiting for the services of the knife-sharpener, and they all seemed to be satisfied with the results.
Beyond the stalls of the main square was a tiny fairground, with rides and slides so diminutive as to be only suitable for the smallest of children. The younger offspring were shouting and laughing as they whirled about, watched anxiously by their parents. The older people were also being entertained by jugglers and fire-eaters, and there was much applause at the most spectacular of their antics, not to mention a few coins being tossed into an old felt hat at their feet.
Walking on, the three companions came across one section of the market, in a smaller area almost completely enclosed and cut off from the rest of the bazaar. Most of the surrounding buildings had high blank stone walls, as if they were turned away and did not want to see. It was almost as if, Tom thought, an alleyway between buildings had been widened to be just broad enough for a few tents and stalls on either side.
Tom also noticed something curious about the cobblestones beneath his feet. There were unusually wide gaps between the stones, which were filled with verdant green moss, suggesting that under normal circumstances there was little traffic in this part of the town. The three young men seemed to come across it by happenstance, although Tom later wondered if somehow they had been guided there.
Despite its apparent obscurity, this part of the market was bustling with activity. Stalls draped with colourful awnings lined both sides of the street, and the narrow open space in between so crowded that Tom and the others were jostled almost constantly. The first stand that they passed was offering a huge variety of mysterious potions and medicines, salves and ointments for ailments of all kinds, some of which Tom could not identify, and others where he would have been far too embarrassed to enquire further.
At least two of the stalls were competing in their selection of good-luck charms, which included the familiar lucky white heather and the traditional lucky rabbit's foot. Although not so lucky for the rabbit, thought Tom wryly. There were other trinkets, too, which he had not previously come across; these included an assortment of highly-polished translucent stones purporting to ensure that the bearer would not go astray when walking at night.
A nearby booth was hawking hand-made jewellery. Rings, amulets and necklaces made with large coloured stones and silver filigree were displayed under the watchful eye of the stallholder. As they passed by, Tom overheard the stallholder explaining in a loud voice to a potential customer the various desirable properties of a ring bearing a large blue jewel: many children, wealth and long life seemed to cover the general tenor of his promises.
Towards the end of the row of stalls, there was a small upright tent made of a striped blue material. Tom felt sure that this had to be the pitch of a fortune teller, a guess that was confirmed as the three young men strolled closer. The clairvoyant's skills were advertised, as if it was really necessary, by a weather-beaten sign. Originally, this had been brightly painted, but it now faded to a point of near unintelligibility.
Passing the tent flap, Tom caught sight of the mystic within. She was a tall and surprisingly young-looking woman with elegant, even striking facial features, which were just a little bit too pronounced and angular for real beauty. The woman's dauntingly attractive appearance was emphasised by the application of considerable quantities of dark eye make-up. Tom could practically hear his Granny's voice echoing in his head, "Painted Hussy".
"Do you want to have your fortune told?" Bram asked, out of the blue.
"No, not really," Tom answered immediately.
Alistair looked faintly surprised.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Well, I can't believe that my future is all that predictable just at the moment," Tom replied, "And I'm really not that keen anyway."
"Suit yourself," Bram said in a disinterested manner.
The three men walked on, leaving the mossy alleyway through a pair of iron gates set into a stone archway, and joining a more well-travelled street. It seemed that they had circled around, and they found themselves heading back towards the guildhall along a wide avenue where it seemed that every other building was an inn or hostelry of some kind.
"Fancy a spot of lunch, boys?" Bram asked, looking up at the sign of the "Crossed Keys".
Tom and Alistair looked at each other.
"I don't mind if I do," Tom said sardonically.
The public bar was crowded with farm hands, all smoking and talking at the tops of their voices. As they entered, they separated almost instinctively. Alistair used his height to signal for drinks over the heads of the drinkers cluttering the bar area. Tom made for the kitchen door, and rapidly negotiated for ploughman's lunches, while Bram, somehow exercising his luck again, managed to find them a table in the corner.
They had just started tucking into their bread and cheese when Tom noticed the tall and mysterious woman they had seen earlier enter the bar. She wore a floor-length cape in some dark material and carried a tall staff in her right hand. Her flowing robes and long black hair caused heads to turn throughout the room, and the level of conversation dropped noticeably. He was impressed to see that she managed imperiously to ignore her audience completely, and made a bee-line for the companions, arriving uninvited at their table.
It seemed to Tom that there might have been some flash of mutual recognition between the tall woman and Bram, although he could not be sure.
As one, the three young men politely stood up, drawing back their stools, Alistair tugging off his cap automatically.
"Good afternoon, Ma'am," he said.
"I am looking for the three Army men," she said without preamble, "You are they, are you not?"
"We're not actually in the Army any more, Ma'am," Alistair responded, "But, yes, we all served in the Infantry during the War and we've now been demobilised."
"Then you are the Army men," she asserted firmly, "I have a message for you - indeed, I have two messages."
"Messages? Who from?" Tom asked, disquieted by the direct approach, "We don't know anyone around here."
The woman fixed him with a piercing glance, softened by a wry half-smile which somehow emphasised her high cheekbones.
"My messages are not necessarily from a person," she said enigmatically, "I see many things, not all of them plainly visible to other folk. I am required to tell you something of what I see."
Tom was intrigued, but did not feel it polite to enquire exactly who had required the lady to communicate the messages.
"I see a complex future for you all," she continued inscrutably, "The three of you will soon go on a long journey, sometimes together, sometimes apart, but always marching in step."
Bram's reaction, it seemed to Tom, was rather strange. He appeared to be watching Tom and Alistair closely, and did not seem to be at all surprised by the psychic's sudden appearance.
"Is that the message?" Tom asked, feeling completely confused.
"It is one of the messages."
"And what's the other one?"
"The other message," she replied, "Will take a little longer to convey."
Bram took the initiative.
"Let me find you a seat, Ma'am," he said, "So that you can make yourself comfortable while you deliver your message."
The curious group still had the attention of almost everyone in the bar. One old sheep-drover, clearly smitten and having overheard Bram's remarks, immediately stood up and offered his chair to the mystery woman. She nodded regally in thanks, and sat down. Bram and Alistair sank into their own seats.
"Can I get you a drink, Ma'am?" Tom enquired.
"A port and lemon, if you please," she responded, smiling graciously.
Tom rapidly wormed his way through the crowded bar, purchased the requested refreshment and hurried back. The mystic accepted the drink with another smile and a raised eyebrow, which Tom took to mean than he should sit down and pay attention.
"My second message," the mysterious lady pronounced, "Might seem to be a story, a childish tale, but you should understand that there are matters of import contained therein."
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