“Watch where yer going’ fatty!” the blacksmith shouted, with a rough push.
The man toppled backwards, with the promise of falling had he not landed safely against the blond barmaid. A much more pleasant encounter than the cruel, hard floor.
“Get off me, you lecherous twit, I’ve got work to do, can’t you see that?”
“My pardon, Molls,” he said, with a small smile as he righted himself. He continued his way through the Three Sisters Inn, which was full tonight. Too full, he thought, as he began the laborious journey up the steep and narrow flight of stairs. The less people who remembered he was here tonight, the better. By the time he reached the top, he was breathing heavily, and lumbered down the dimly-lit hall to the fourth room on the right. Three knocks. Stop, then two more.
He waited for the doorknob to slowly turn and click back. The door opened a crack, and an eye peered out. “Who’s there?”
“I think my bulk alone would answer that question, Tarl,” the man wheezed. “How many three-hundred pound barbers do you know?”
The door opened to reveal a tall, dour man. “Come on, then,” Tarl slurred. He stumbled back to allow him inside.
Already, the air felt stuffy, the room too small as he stepped across the threshold. The lamp cast scarcely enough light for the place. The barber had half a mind to keep the door open, but that’s what fools did—trust in light to save them, just as the cruel believed darkness covered all sin. Well, he was in between the damned and the saved, so one lamp would do just fine. He closed the door behind him and stood there, dripping with sweat and wheezing like an old man. Tarl looked scarcely better. The tanner was swaying side to side, his brown tunic and breeches still covered in soot.
“How drunk are you?” the barber asked.
Tarl looked down at his work-worn hands. “Drunk enough.”
The barber glanced at the little girl lying asleep on the small hay bed in the corner of the room. “How long has she been out like that?”
“Just a little while,” Tarl said. “She’ll stay that way for the rest of the night.”
The barber nodded once. “Good enough. He’ll be here soon; then we can conduct business and be on our way.”
“Is that what you’re callin’ it now? Business?”
“In light of the unfortunate circumstances that are about to plague us, yes.” The barber unloosed the tie to his long cloak and flung it on the larger bed against the right wall. “I’ve made it my business to secure peace when war looms on the horizon. What else would you call it?”
Tarl pointed to the three maroon emblems emblazoned on the barber’s vest. “I can think of few other words—”
A sharp knock at the door.
“Who’s there?” Tarl barked.
“Someone who’ll slit your throat if you don’t let him in,” a quiet voice replied.
The barber heaved his body onto the center bed and motioned for Tarl to open the door. “It’s him.”
Tarl opened the door wide enough for a tall gentleman to step inside. He wore the maroon cloak and gold badge of the draper’s guild, with knee-high leather boots. A rather good disguise, the barber thought. Too blond, though. He liked his men a bit more dark and brooding. His women too. Still, a handsome face, with a strong jaw framed by short hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. The barber had to admire the cut and shape of both.
The draper looked over to the corner bed. “Is she—”
“Asleep,” Tarl said.
The draper nodded, withdrew a small bag from his cloak, and opened it to show the gold coin that filled it to the brim. He picked one gold piece out and tossed it to Tarl. “Test it.”
Tarl threw it back at the draper’s feet. “Ain’t doin’ this for money, damn you.”
"What my friend here is trying to say is that there are more important things at stake,” the barber quickly added, picking up the gold piece. He bit into it. Soft, just as it should be. He dropped it back into the draper’s money bag.
The draper drew the string close. “You secure those stakes with this exchange, providing its truth.” Four long steps and he was standing over the little girl asleep in the corner. He knelt down beside her. Very gently he brushed a lock of dark hair from her eyes. “Are your certain this is the one?” he asked softly, his face unreadable. She had seen no more than seven or eight years.
“Oh yes,” the barber answered. “Our sentries have watched her wandering the Seven Woods alone for the last six months now. It took some time before we caught her, for she seemed to know the forest better than the woodland guards.”
“I’ve heard legends about your woods,” the draper said, still gazing at the little face. “Ours die so quickly.”
“Any forest will die if you lay an axe or fire to it,” the barber retorted. “Which is why we are all here. Now, let us get on with it.”
The draper stood up. “Why are you so nervous, sir barber?” he asked softly. “Do you know, perhaps, of others?”
“I didn’t know about this one until your visit a year ago,” he said sharply. “I found her. I know of no others, nor have I heard any tales of them. May Neáhvalar forgive us.” He signed a circle in the air
then folded his hands. Tarl briefly looked up, did the same, then cast his eyes on the floor.
“If your god had wanted them safe,” the draper said in a voice as smooth as the silk he wore, “he would have saved them in the first place, don’t you think?”
The barber let a scowl pass over his face. “Such matters are beyond me, nor do I wish to get tangled up in them in the future.”
“We honor those who honor us, lord barber.” He smiled, a long slow grin that made him quite beautiful even as hurled the bag of money straight at the fat man’s chest.
The barber only slightly flinched as he caught the bag. “We have neither lord nor king in Gaelastad. Play out your politics in the great lands, and leave us in peace.”
“You have my assurance there will be peace, but even that comes at a price.” The draper went to kneel by the little girl again. He placed his hand gently on her forehead. “Where will you take her when I am through?”
“We’ll return her to the center of the Seven Woods,” Tarl slurred, “where we found her.”
The draper’s ice blue eyes lighted up—with understanding or desire, the barber couldn’t tell. “An excellent
choice,” he said, kissing her brow and reaching for a second time into the depths of his cloak.
Whatever their choices tonight, the barber thought, they were damned, all of them. No no no, this is to keep damnation from coming, another voice inside his head argued. The moonstone blade flickered purpled in the candlelight, its jeweled hilt half hidden by the draper’s hand. A thing of beauty, the barber thought, as he turned his head away. Tarl buried his face in his hands, moaning softly. It was just enough noise to cover up the little girl’s gasp.