People moved through the streets, bundled in heavy fabrics, crying their wares and services to all that would hear them all except for one, a tall man moved through the crowd wearing loose and light clothes in shades of white and light blue. Donal moved through them all with a large pile of furs draped over his shoulders, icy blue eyes picking through the crowd trying to determine the best vendor to sell his goods to. He had been out in the wilds for the last two months, tracking and trapping to earn a few more coins before returning to the wilds again.
Frost covered his thick black hair and no amount of brushing it away would remove it. He had long ago reconciled to the fact that it was part of his heritage, part of his clan's heritage. His people, or what had been his people, were descendants from humans that had consummated with Elementals, a risky affair in the best of times. They were now all long gone, victims of their own seclusion policies and all that was left were a few individuals who struggled to survive in the world outside. Like himself.
Adjusting the bundles of fur on one shoulder, he placed his hand on the small warhammer on his right-hand side as he passed by the taverns. There were more then a few locals who would go for the easy coin of jumping a fur-trader and he had seen it happen to his competitors more then once. The foot-long hammer was small compared to those carried by the dwarves or even muscled barbarians but it was all that he needed. There was another on his left but he rarely needed to call upon it these days.
The frost-covered man peered at one of the taverns and drew in a deep breath and exhaled, a steady stream of frost. He didn't care to be going into those establishments but that was where the merchants who would buy his goods frequented. The wooden steps creaked as he stepped towards the door and pushed back the heavy iron-framed door and into the establishment. Noise assaulted him from every direction, making him yearn for the quiet of the wilds, and the smoke from the fireplace and pipes filled with tobacco stung at his eyes.
He pushed himself through the crowd and moved to an empty table, dropping the furs onto the table and pulling out his hammer and placed it next to it with an audible thunk. Lowering himself into the seat, Donal placed a hand on the hammer as he looked out over the crowd. First, a drink, and then business, he thought to himself as he waved towards a serving girl.
For Wilfred had been robbed. He had, two days ago, been in possession not only of a very fine winter coat, made of the finest fox pelts and stitched together by elfin tailors to provide exceptional comfort, but also of a very fat purse full of coins. Both were gone, taken from him at dagger-point a few hours outside the city. All Wilfred had left was the clothes on his back, and the message he was to deliver, sewn into a secret pouch that, thankfully, the band of children - CHILDREN - who had robbed him had not thought to look for.
Wilfred had made it to the city and, against orders, had forced himself to use his name and title to procure new clothing and maybe a little bit of money. But Wilfred Altair, Vice-under secretary to Senator Ponler of the Southern Marshlands had found that his name was unknown, his title was laughed at, and regardless, he was not believed.
And so here he was. Cold, stuck and hungry. As the wind subsided, he looked to see who had entered, and a thin smile spread his lips as he saw it was a fur merchant. Wilfred knew next to nothing about the art of making clothes, but how hard could it be... just stick a needle through the edges of things and make them fit to the body, right? If he could just get those furs!
Wilbur got to his feet, and settled himself down next to the merchant.
"I want those furs. Name your price." He said, not sparing the warmth of his breath for any unnecessary words.
Donal placed a hand on the furs and the other on the hammer, eying the man cautiously. It was easy to discover that this man wasn't from this region, most likely a scented flower from the south.
"You aren't a trader," he said simply, looking the man up and down. "How would you know if I was giving you a good price or gouging your purse?" The hand on the hammer moved slowly away and he began digging through the furs. "From the look of you, this is your spring here. Most likely your last, too." He was sorely tempted to rip this man off, take him for every copper he was worth just to teach him a lesson but up here, that lesson could easily cost a person their life. The snows bred hardness into the locals and it took a long time for them to warm up to anyone. The stranger would have to do a lot of warming if he was to survive long enough to take the next caravan south.
Donal sighed and then raised his hand to the server. "Two stews, a tea and a glass of water," he called over the din of the tavern before leaning back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. His eyes caught something in the pile of the furs and he pulled forward again and reached in. A moment later, a rolled up piece of deer hide was thrust upon the man, only four feet by six. "Here, wrap yourself up in this while we talk prices." He paused before continuing. "Or you can tell me why you're here so I can point you in the right direction before you freeze to death."
"Thank you." He said, looking the man up and down as he did so. Something seemed a little off for lack of a better word about the man. Something not quite human, but not something that Wilfred could place.
"Listen, I don't care what your price is, sir. Name it and you will be paid double." Wilfred paused, then barreled on ahead. Better to be honest up front than lead people on. "Here's the thing. I can't pay you now. Thieves - Children, really - took everything from me. But I promise you as vice-undersecretary, that the coffers of Senator Richard Ponler will repay you. I just need the furs."
Wilfred grimaced and waited to be rejected once again.
"I honestly don't care about the money, but these furs won't do you any good," he explained. "They need to be sewn first and its a lot more difficult then you can imagine. You need the right knives and the right needles. You need proper clothes but first you need to eat and warm up." He couldn't help but smile slightly at the thought of this man, so full of himself with his titles and promises, being robbed by the local children. What kind of a man came up here, alone, with nothing but a fancy title to protect him?
"While you eat, why not tell me who this Senator is and what brings you here and then we'll see about getting you some proper clothes and send you on your way." He made no move towards his own stew, preferring to eat it cold. Another reminder of his heritage, he thought with an inner smirk.
Firstly: Wilfred imagined the fur trader knew what it would take to make a cloak from his hides. If he said it wasn't going to happen, it probably wasn't going to happen. Which meant...
Secondly: This man was being too kind. Offering to help him but not wanting any money for it implied that he was being paid by someone else with deep pockets. Was he a spy? The Senator had made it clear that the letter he carried had to make it to the Droben community in the shadow of Mount Darkridge, and had left it unsaid that there might be others... Senators whose homelands were not overrun by the thieves of the 'Free Cities' or perhaps one of the gutterlords themselves... who would desperately want to get their hands on his message. This was a large enough city, after all. Surely the spy networks extended up here, and it wasn't as if Wilfred had been all that inconspicuous, after all. It would be simple enough to impersonate a 'fur merchant' and draw him out. Which meant...
Third: Wilfred needed to lie. Unfortunately, he had already revealed a lot of information that he couldn't take back.
Wilfred, as calmly as he was able, spooned out the last few drops of stew, took a breath, and began to speak.
"Senator Ponler is a wonderful man, really. He is the Senator from Southport, far to the south in the marshlands where the Glasswater reaches the ocean. I'm his most recent hire, you see, and it is his custom to send his people on trips when they are new to see the reaches of this glorious empire we both find ourselves a part of. Snowhaven is the closest major city to the Capital, and is, coincidentally, the most difficult to reach, so he sent me here first."
Wilfred furrowed his brow (he thought quite convincingly)
"I think he might be testing me, really. Seeing if I'm ready and able to serve him properly... although I'm fairly certain he didn't intend for me to get robbed and left cold and penniless. At least I hope not. Do you think he might have?"
Wilfred told himself to not get carried away, and, glancing about for a way to move the conversation away from him, gestured at the trader's bowl.
"Are you just going to let it get cold? Seems like such a waste."
Personally, he didn't believe that last bit at all but he had heard the saying enough. It was said that the only warmth a northerner had was in his belly but from his own experience it was more so in the heart. When he had first wandered into Snowhaven, it was a local who had taught him who to go to sell his goods, to know which furs brought in the most money and which were the most needed. That man had died years ago but it was that kindness that Donal was showing this stranger now as he did any that looked to need it.
He waved towards the serving girl and motioned for another bowl for the man. "Seems smart enough. Gets his men to understand fully the lands of the Empire." A nod and then a shrug of his shoulders. His eyes moved towards the bundle of fur. There was more then a substantial enough amount of gold to have should they be sold to the right person. A shift of his hand and he moved them towards the stranger. "Here, take them. You can find a merchant to sell them to either in the tavern here or along the tanner's street. Avoid Ercole. He has a stand near the corner of the merchant's square. He'll only give you a fraction of what these are worth." A pause. "If you don't feel right taking it, have your Senator Ponier pay me back when you want."
Leaning back, he studied the man before taking a long drink of water. His story didn't seem to quite make sense. A mental shrug. Whatever the man was hiding wasn't for him to pry, just as long as it didn't bring any trouble.
"I'm sure he didn't intend for you to get robbed, but maybe just for you to experience a few hardships." He nodded towards the empty bowl. "Don't worry about the food. Each and drink as much as you need to and get a room if need be. Just mention my name to any honest merchant and they'll get you setup for your journey. Again, if you don't feel right about it, have your Senator pay me back." A smirk as he realized something. "I guess you'll be needing it then. My name, that is. Donal."
"Just... take them? Just like that?" He spluttered out, new bowl of soup momentarily forgotten. "I... you don't want to..."
The wheels turned in Wilfred's head. It made no sense for a man whose livelihood was trapping to give up an entire trip worth of skins to a complete stranger. Yet more evidence that the man was a spy, with money coming from elsewhere.
"Thank you, Donal. My name is Ron." Wilfred said, using the name of his younger brother just in case he was being looked for by name.
"I do promise you that you will be repaid handsomely from the Senatorial Funds. Is this a good place to meet you, say in two month's time?"
While waiting for the answer, Wilfred's mind was already plotting. Why would a spy tell him to go to any merchant except one? Because that Merchant could help him, obviously. He would have to pay a visit to this Ercole as soon as possible.
He looked down to his unfinished stew, finding his appetite gone. He had eaten before coming to the city, preferring the meat from his own kills to those served in these establishments, but if he hadn't had a bowl with 'Ron', he felt it would just be rude. All he truly desired was the water which he downed in a gulp.
"Two months? Can't promise anything. The herds should be moving around that time and winter be setting in." Donal placed a hand on his smooth chin and frowned in thought. He truly didn't need the money. Most of which people earned up here was placed on what sustained them; firewood, clothing, and food, but he didn't need anything but the latter and that was easily acquired through hunting. "Tell you what, send it to the commander of the militia, a giant of a man named Ralmod, if I'm not around."
The mention of the man reminded him of something and the frost-covered man moved to pick up his hammer from the table. "Speaking of which, I need to talk to him. There's been wolves that have been stealing some of my kills. Not normally a good sign this early." He stood up slowly and bowed his head slightly towards the man. "If you wish, you may come with me. The barracks are past the market."
"That would be wonderful" He said, standing and poking through the stack of furs. "Just a moment, I'd like to be prepared."
He found the largest fur, from some huge elk of the mountains, and took out his dagger. Stabbing into the fur just below one of the edges, he eventually broke a hole through the skin, sending the dagger clunking into the wood of the table. Wilfred twisted it free and did the same at another place along the edge, this time nearly cutting himself as the knife found its way through.
Wilfred put the dagger back in its sheath. From the pocket of his pants, he pulled out a roll of bandage and, rolling it thin, pushed it through the hole on one side, and then the other. Wilfred lifted the elk pelt onto his shoulders, placed his head through the circle he had just created, and then drew the bandage tighter, forming a heavy, makeshift cloak that dragged along the ground behind him, but kept him warm.
Wilfred collected the other furs. "Please, whenever you are ready" he said to Donal. "Lead the way"
Standing up and sliding the hammer into a loop on his belt, he nodded towards the man. "You know that fur you just chose for your cloak was one of the cheapest amongst the pile. Good choice." He grinned and then lead the two of them out of the growing crowd of the tavern and out into the biting cold of the north.
The loose fabric of his clothes billowed in the gusts and Donal took a deep breath of the air. Being outside always made him feel less exposed. He had spent most of his numerous years out in the wild before coming to 'civilization' and those years still controlled a lot of his instincts. Inside the walls and under roofs was just not his way and he had found companionship with the locals that shared his views, mostly amongst the trappers, hunters, and a few soldiers.
He took the man towards the marketplace, nodding towards those that he knew but avoiding conversation with any of them. Ron being behind him with his makeshift cloak made him wary of staying out in the cold too long. Just because Donal didn't feel the cold didn't mean he wasn't aware that others felt its bite too keenly.
The market slowly expanded before them, carts and vendors lining the middle of the road while the more established businesses had built more permanent structures on the side of the road. Those businesses had been here since founding the city or else very close to it and had an air of stability. Stone was used instead of wood and that was expensive to haul from the mountains. The cries of the vendors overtook them almost instantly, vying their wares.
Donal nodded towards a door to their left to a business with a knife portrayed on the sign. "That's Ercols. Good enough fellow, but you'll loose at the bargaining table there. Never takes anything for what its worth." He raised a hand towards a door a few buildings down with furs hanging over the windows. "That's Iashyo's, one of the few elves that lives here. He'll be able to set you up quite nicely and even give you a few coins left over."
Wilfred sighed, nodded his thanks to Donal and trudged the remaining feet towards Iashyo's shop, whose door was shut tight against the cold air. Wilfred took a moment to examine the outside of the shop, cursing inwardly that the qualities that made him good for this task for his Senator were not qualities that would help him determine if this was truly a trap. Wilfred's defining feature, according to the Senator, was that he was Boring. Wilfred thought this was meant as a compliment. He thought the Senator meant that he was unobtrusive and could easily blend in with a crowd, which was the perfect sort of thing to be able to do when delivering an important message. Of course, a boring man in a makeshift cloak carrying a pile of furs... stopped being so boring.
Not discerning any obvious signs that this was not a merchant's place of business, Wilfred shouldered open the door and smiled slightly as the wave of hot air rolled over him. The man made his way to the nearest empty table and laid down the furs.
"Welcome to my shop" a kind voice said from near the fire. "I imagine you've come to sell?"
Wilfred turned and Iashyo, the elf, was sitting at a small table with a pair of chairs. The table and chairs huddled close to the fire, which crackled invitingly, as if to stay warm themselves. Iashyo was an elf in his middle age and wearing impeccably tailored clothing whose eyes never seemed to stop moving, darting all over Wilfred's body before at last leaping up to meet his eyes, although even then they danced away and back again.
"Or perhaps to trade, as you don't exactly appear well equipped. What's your story, boy? Robbed at the gates, warm clothes stolen?"
Wilfred grimaced. "Something like that." He muttered.
"And was that Donal I saw out there? That man is too kind, and a good customer aside. Lets get down to trading his furs...err...." Iashyo waited expectantly.
Wilfred's frown deepened. The elf certainly seemed little more than a merchant, and with him inside and Donal outside, once again, Wilfred found nowhere to run.
"Rob is my name, good merchant. Let us trade."
Iashyo pushed himself to his feet and made his way to the pile of furs and began picking his way through it, sorting the furs by size and quality. Wilfred waited anxiously until Iashyo returned to his chair and gestured for Wilfred to join him. Roughly half an hour later, negotiations were complete, and Wilfred felt that he hadn't come out horribly. He obviously knew only the smallest amount about furs, and was obviously in a very... dire... situation, but Iashyo had been fair and, although he had set his starting offer low, had eventually moved up to a price that Wilfred felt was at least in the range of reasonable.
Iashyo puttered around the shop for a few minutes, gathering items of clothing and pressing them into Wilfred's arms, pointing him towards the back where there was a private room. The air was chilly, but the furs, so expertly tailored that, despite the fact that the two had never met, it seemed as if Iashyo had custom-made the fur suit for Wilfred.
Wilfred returned to the main room, gave his thanks, picked up the small bag of silvers and coppers that remained, and left the shop, finding Donal standing outside.
"Donal, thank you so much for your help today. I would probably have ended up frozen to death without it. I will get your money returned to you, somehow and somewhen."
Wilfred extended his hand to shake Donal's and signal that he was ready to part ways...
Grasping the man's hand, he smiled disarmingly. The loud conversations around them masked his words as he leaned forward and spoke. "You're being followed, Ron. Maybe another person thinking you're an easy target." He hoisted up his free arm and handed the man a small mace. "A precaution."
He turned his head slightly and caught site of the figure, edging their way through the crowd. Whomever it was, it was small, about the size of a large goblin or elf, but it was hard to say as they were wrapped up head to toe in furs. As Donal's eyes swept over the figure, they turned away and began to study something on a vendor's table.
"If you wish, I can deal with them or we can speak to the garrison and maybe get you an escort. Or," he paused. "You can hit them with your new mace and rob them before they rob you." A wide grin lit up his face.
This is it. He thought to himself. Wilfred, you had a good run, but now he's going to - oh, wait. Not being killed
Wilfred took the mace and held it gingerly.
"Followed?" He said, proud that his voice did not crack as he said it. His gaze followed Donal's head and eyes, and he quickly saw the figure that Donal had mentioned. Goblin, wearing a bright blue sash under the thick fur coat who clutched his right hand deep under his cloak and never showed it... Wilfred had a flash of recollection...
It had been a month or so ago, about a week after he had started working for the Senator, and for the first time, Wilfred had been taken to the Senate itself, which some said predated the Empire's founding by hundreds of years. Seeing the massive marble structure from the inside, Wilfred could believe the stories. It had been there that Wilfred had seen a goblin, with a twisted and scarred right hand and wearing a bright blue sash trailing after another senator. If...
Wilfred intently watched the hood of the cloaked figure. After a few moments, the goblin turned its head and Wilfred saw the fabric pull tight against the side of the goblin's face. Half the ear was missing. It was Him.
Wilfred made a split-second decision.
"Donal. I have lied to you. I am on a mission for my senator, and I believe that others in the Empire wish to stop me. That goblin is from the Capitol and works for another Senator. I can only imagine that he wishes me ill. I would..." Wilfred paused to choose his words. "... prefer if he were evaded, not... disposed of, if possible."
In all of his two hundred years hanging out with humans and the other races, he had been betrayed more then once but each time, it hit him hard.
The snow began to calm around them, leaving their feet clear and yet a small drift had formed around the two of them. Clenching his jaw tight, he considered the events of the day. He relaxed slightly and then placed a hand on the small man's shoulder.
"I appreciate your honesty, however late," he said coldly. "The mission you have for your Senator. Where do you have to go?" As he asked the question, he began to move through the crowd, heading towards a massive stone building, the stones set tight and having a very military feel to it. Wandering in front of it were a handful of soldiers wearing white tunics over thick leather armor. A flag flew overhead, the flag of the Empire. "I need to know which direction to send the snow."
"Darkridge Mountain, Donal. That is where I need to go with a letter from my Senator. Get me free of here and I will explain everything, including why I lied to you."
The militia would have to wait.
"Come with me," he said quickly and moved into a narrow alley. Snow was piled thick on both sides, covering empty crates and barrels, and was barely wide enough for the two of them. Making sure the man had followed, Donal swept his hand towards the way they had come. Snow began to drift and blow, picking at their clothes, as the alley's mouth began to be filled with a sizable snow drift. There was no way someone would be following through that way anytime soon, not without a shovel.
He turned towards Ron again. "I haven't had a hunting partner in some time. What is it you require for such a journey?" he asked before turning down towards the other end of the alley, hoping to make it into the crowd on the next street before their follower caught up to this side.
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