Malachi and his partners met the Ruk caravan at the trading hill outside the village, after a single Ruk, sweating and nervous, had come as herald into the village square to announce their approach and then scrabbled away as fast as his bandy legs could carry him. The hill was far enough away from the village to be hidden by the rolling land, though it was no secret where the village lay; one only had to follow the wagon ruts back from the trading hill, as the lone herald Ruk had done. But mutant tribes were never invited into a village of the Pure, not with rumors and reports of maidens spirited away by various mutant caravans to help keep those deformed races alive.
And then there was the fact that Ruks stank. Malachi steeled himself and kept from flinching as a Ruk from the caravan, evidently its trade captain, climbed to the crest of the trading hill and bowed. He was dressed, like all those in the caravan, in a plain tunic of scavenged fabric that reach to his knobby knees, and as the wind changed, the smell of him caught Malachi like a fist to the side of the head: sour and dank, like wine that had turned to vinegar mixed with mushrooms. Malachi’s polite smile never faltered, even as he heard his partners behind him shift and cough.
“Welcome to trade, caravaneer,” Malachi said formally. “I am Malachi Asael’s son.”
“Many thanks for your welcome,” the Ruk said. “I am Skuchi Var-Bel Frashaa.”
Malachi wondered idly if he had met this particular Ruk at a previous year’s trade. He never remembered their names, given only as a formality, and they all looked the same to him: short like a child, with a bald and square head squatting neckless on lumpy shoulders, a pot belly pushing the tunic forward, and spindly arms poking out of the armholes to end in spadelike fingers hanging fully to the knees. This one, this Skuchi, had a necklace of horses’ teeth and twisted bits of metal, probably to show his status as chief trader for the caravan. Two of his lieutenants lingered on the slope of the hill; the rest of the Ruks hung back at the bottom with their wagons, their various beasts of burden stomping and whinnying.
Skuchi folded himself to the ground and motioned to his lieutenants, who hurried forward, spread a blanket before him, and dropped several wrapped bundles before retreating. Malachi’s men did the same, setting covered baskets before him on the blanket they unrolled.
In a sitting position, Malachi didn’t have nearly the advantage of height over the Ruk, and they saw almost eye to eye. Skuchi smiled, showing the gapped, rounded teeth common to all Ruks, and Malachi had a sudden vision of this Ruk or one like it slavering over a winsome maid. He pushed this afterimage of old wives’ tales out of his mind.
“Let us trade,” Malachi said…