Cathar, chief of the Tinkers, seemed a good man though Mirowen called him a breed, and did not trust him. Festuscato could almost smell the blood of the little ones flowing in these predominately human travelers. He suspected they could swear to something and mean it with their whole hearts, and completely change their minds fifteen minutes later. They had a true gypsy smell about them, and their wagons, animals and lifestyle all reinforced that impression.
The Tinkers worked in tin and copper, sometimes leather, and their women wove flax and wool and created patterns with dyes that were works of art. Mostly, they made themselves available for labor. They went where the work was, and hearing about a town beset by Saxon raiders seemed an invitation to work. The men presented themselves first thing in the morning, did an honest day’s work, took their pay at sundown and with a small salute, went back to their wagons and their own separate world. They were a pleasant enough people, but they kept to themselves. Sometimes, they told jokes in their own twisted, Gaelic tongue that no one could understand, and they laughed; but the locals could not help the feeling that they were the ones being laughed at.
“They do good work,” MacNeill admitted. “But you have to watch them. You dare not trust them. They have a strange view about property. They mostly trade for things they want. They are hard horse traders, but sometimes they just take the things they say they need and they don’t understand why that is wrong. Little things mostly, but annoying. You have to watch them.”
“And they never settle down?” Festuscato wondered.
“They might stay for a couple of months in one place and a couple of years in another, but eventually they move on to other pastures and annoy some other Lord. They do good work, though, if you can keep them busy.”
“But where did they come from?”
“Well,” MacNeill had to think a minute. “Some say they followed the Irish when the people first came up and conquered the land. That was ages ago. Others say they once had fine homes in a prosperous, magical land, and they were a peaceful people, but their neighbors were greedy and eventually drove them out and took the land, and after that they vowed to never again settle down so they would never again be driven out; though some say they lost their way, so they travel still looking for that prosperous, magical land that was their home. Then some say they are the remains of the people that lived on this land before the Irish came and defeated them in battle, and they travel and await the day when the Irish all kill each other off and they can take back their homes. Who can say what the truth is.” MacNeill shrugged and Festuscato stood.
“All the same,” he said. “Something does not smell right. I don’t sense danger, but my curiosity is up. I think I want a talk with Cathar. Excuse me.”
MacNeill shrugged again and gave his advice. “Hold on to your purse.”
Cathar came out from the wagons to meet Festuscato on neutral ground. “Lord.” Cathar put his hands up in a clear sign that he was cutting Festuscato off from the community.
“Come over here,” Festuscato suggested. He took the man to a place beneath the fort wall where the makeshift battering ram used by the Saxons lay abandoned and untouched. “Sit,” he said, and the two men sat.
“I do not understand,” Cathar started right up. “But you make my people uncomfortable. The women all want to be with you in the worst way, and the men all want to fight you for the women, but they are afraid to touch you. I feel it myself, but I do not understand it.”
“I understand it,” Festuscato admitted. “But that is not what concerns me. It is something else, something you are carrying in your baggage.” Festuscato paused to consider his words. “Have you traveled all of your life?”
Cathar nodded. “And my father, and his father before him. My family has traveled for as many generations as there is memory.”
“And you have no desire to settle down.” Festuscato made it a statement, but Cathar took it as a question.
“There are many deep reasons for that, and I dare not start or I would feel compelled to tell you all of them, and that is strange and impossible because such things are not for outsiders. Let me just say men kill and die for land. We have no land. We have nothing anyone wants.”
“Hush,” Festuscato let the man keep his secrets. “You have to tread lightly to not get caught up in the foolishness of men. And you should always trade for what you need, never just take it, but otherwise you understand it is property, not just land that men fight over. But you know that. No, there is something else I am sensing. What is it?”
Cathar looked back at his camp and shook his head. “We have nothing in the camp that is special. Some tools, cooking pots and utensils, our plates and cups are plain wood. I have no idea what you are sensing.”
“Do you stay long when you camp?” Festuscato asked, not sure what to ask.
“We have, in the past. But these last couple of years we have moved again and again. It seems we barely get settled and we are told to leave. People claim we bring them bad luck and ill will. Some even complain we give them nightmares. I know it is simple prejudice. The Irish are not trusting of strangers, but it seems to me these last couple of years have been especially bad.
Festuscato looked down as the man talked and then said something that surprised Cathar. “Nice shoes. Where did you get them?”
“Eh?” My grandfather made them for me.” Cathar blurted it out before he could stop his tongue.
Festuscato nodded and called the name that came into his head. “McKraken.” Thirty little men appeared out of thin air, and Festuscato had to wave his hand. “Only the grandfather,” and as twenty-nine one-foot tall men disappeared, he added, “Same name must be an Irish thing.” Then he said to the little man, “Stay. Talk with us. I have some questions.”
The man stood a foot tall, only a bit taller than normal fairy size, but he had no wings. He had red hair, wore fairy weave like a gnome might wear that blended like camouflage into the grasses, and wore fine looking shoes over feet that were frankly too big for his body. Festuscato said nothing about it because leprechauns were so easily offended, and he knew big feet was typical.
“How many questions,” McKraken asked with a squint of his eyes. “Grandtoot.” He acknowledged his grandson after a fashion. Cathar kept his mouth closed, but stared all the more intensely at Festuscato.
“No limits. No tricks,” Festuscato said. “I want to know what this troop of Travelers is dragging with it.”
“Don’t know,” McKraken said honesty enough, as he glanced at the Traveler’s camp. “We visit sometimes.”
Festuscato shook his head. “You haven’t visited your grandson in twenty years, so that isn’t it.”
“Well, they went away when the dragons came, and my feet can only walk so far, you know.”
“Grandfather?” Cather started putting things together, like he had forgotten his own roots.
“Grandboop,” McKraken said, to acknowledge the man again.
“So, what should I do since you know mingling with humans is forbidden?” Festuscato asked.
“Wish us well? Grant us a long, happy and prosperous life?”
“I was thinking MacNeill needs a new pair of boots.”
McKraken paused and rubbed his chin. “Something there might be worked out.”
“No deals. You just do it. Call it penance, and measure his foot so you get the size right. He needs good, comfortable, sturdy, long-lasting footwear, and no tricks. Now, go and visit with your family and bless them. Go on.”
Cathar stood and as they walked, he looked down. “Grandfather?”
“Grandshoot,” McKraken called Cathar.
Festuscato rubbed his own chin. He got nowhere by asking. They did not seem to know anything. He would just have to wait and see.