The street was difficult on kids, but the citizens in Flent treated Toller and Massy with extra kindness because of their dark skin, thinking they were deserted far away from their home. It was sort of true, but Flent was the only home they really new.
Toller and Massy pulled their food carts in the dark down the Midway road toward Market street, staying on the smooth dirt between the wagon ruts. Aromas of pork fat, eggs, and fresh bread trailed from the wheeled enclosures. Their unhappiness today weighed upon them from Jenkels’s orders to work opposite ends of the market.
“Want to slingshot rats by the river after?” asked Massy.
“Yeah. Sure.” said Toller. “If we do it by the culvert, we can pick favorites.”
‘Picking favorites’ was one of their many games played during the slow times. They spotted pretty girls and settled on a favorite, then made up things to prove how she merited the honor.
Three years they had worked these streets, hocking cooked meats and breads, pulling in as many customers as they could in amicable competition that cemented a friendship. But Jenkels owned the market, and to disobey him was to lose everything.
“Why so glum, boys?”
Before them stood an egg-headed man, dressed like a farmer and holding a bush on a stave. His countenance was warm but dangerous, but the foolish looking shrub made it difficult to take him seriously. Next to him was a youth, barely a man, who smiled at them.
Toller, usually the wary one, felt compelled to answer. “We can’t work together anymore.”
“Why not?” said the youth.
“Boss says so,” said Massy.
“Are you brothers?” asked the man.
“Nah,” said Toller. “We’re just thick as plaster paste.” The younger one smirked, making Toller uncomfortable. “What I mean to say is we’ve been playfellows since we were babes.”
The man took a few steps and dropped to a knee in front of them, still slightly taller. “If I gave you a special gift, would you trade us a light breakfast?”
Toller and Massy looked at each other. “I don’t know,” said Massy. “Jenkels accounts for it all.”
Toller noticed that the branches of the shrub grew out of the stave, and its strangeness enraptured him. “Why do you carry a bush,” he asked.
The man chuckled. “This is an exceptional staff that I use to provide special gifts.”
Massy’s eyes widened. “You. You’re an elder.” He nudged his companion. “Toller, they’re elders.”
Toller gazed at them with wonder. A special gift? He might mean a hat that always had a coin in it no matter how many times you spent it. Or winged shoes to let them fly. “Massy, maybe we should accept a swap this once. We can make up the difference with our chocolates. It’s what we do when we get robbed.”
The uncertainty in Massy’s eyes changed to excitement. “Okay.”
The deal struck, the elder mumbled as he focused on his shrub, holding it with both hand, then dipped his head and let the stave go. It stood by itself, light breeze disturbing the leaves, as the elder placed a hand on each of the carts. His arms tensed and he mumbled again. He relaxed, stood, and clutched the stave.
“Just a portion of meat and bread for each of us, please.”
“Where’s the gift?” asked Toller.
“The gift is in your carts,” he said. “I have bound these carts together with a tendril of the Vine of Urluthe. The light of the Vine and all its substance unite them.” He smiled. “Enjoy it.”
“Enjoy it how?” asked Massy.
“When you get to your station, fold out the counter plate and watch it. If it does nothing, wait. When both of you have reached your positions and unfolded it, you will see your gift.”
The boys gave them a little of everything. Toller gave pork and bread, Massy gave eggs and duck. They heard chortling as they left the elders behind and hurried to their stations to beat the morning crowd.
When Toller reached his spot amidst the textile vendors, he pulled out the counter. He stared at it for a while, but nothing happened. He pulled the food out, muttering about the crumby elder, when he heard Massy. He looked around, but could not see him. “Toller. I see you!” Toller followed the voice to his counter, and upon its surface was Massy’s face.
Toller’s spine shivered and the hairs on his arms and neck stood up. “I see you, too.” They chatted a few minutes about the arriving crowds and the goods on display.
That was no crumby elder, and the boys had just made the trade of their lives.
“This changes everything,” Toller said.
“I know,” said Massy. “We can startle our patrons with animal noises.”
Toller smirked. Some have great vision, and some also see.