“Where are we going again?” asked Bruno.
“Do please try to pay attention. It could save your life one day. We’re going to Black Oak Village, and we’re almost there.” said Matar.
“Sounds dreadful, Black Oak Village. What business do we have there?”
Sighing heavily, Matar rested his hand on his face for a moment. “I swear on the Queen’s jewels, I should never have agreed to take you. If you weren’t her son, and if I weren’t her Chief Strategist, I would have left you in the woods days ago. You do need field experience, but why, oh why did I get chosen for this honor? Some days I wish I could go back to being a lowly courier. The Queen has charged me with, ahem, paying a few men a visit in Black Oak. As well as reestablishing favor with the local baron, Baron Izadore.”
“But, Matar-” But before Bruno could finish, he found the famous black pole staff resting on his throat and held by the deft hands of Matar. That black pole appeared from nowhere. The speed and apparition of the pole had become legendary, and was frequently referred to as “Black Lightning”.
Matar starred murderously at the boy. The boy coughed meekly and mustered a “…Master”. Matar put his staff down but kept a side long stare at the boy.
“Apologies, Master. I meant no offense.”
“Accepted. You are the Queen’s son, but you are not above me by a long shot. You will learn respect, and you will learn it quickly around me. As you were saying.”
“As I was saying, Master, I have been on many errands in the field. I have done my share of diplomacy. What makes Black Oak different? Black Oak is one of our territories is it not? We go in, play nice, play mean, and then wrap it up.”
“It’s not so simple. Black Oak is a hotly contested area, as well as a No Man’s Land. It is surrounded by gold mines, The La Roca family, Dwarves, and Elves, all of which love gold. Vile scum from all over the land congregate here to try and snatch some of that precious gold. This is no place for a youngling like yourself.”
Bruno bristled at being reminded of his age. “Master, I am already 16, I am young, but I am not so stupid as my peers.”
“No, but you are still only 5 Queen’s feet tall. Which is why you will be wearing a hood the whole time we are in Black Oak, and pretending to be a dwarf.”
“What!” exclaimed Bruno. “Master, please! Don’t subject me to such humiliation! I must represent the Queen and her people!”
“No. And that’s final.”
Bruno fumed for a while at the resolution of the argument and powerlessness of his situation. They trotted on their horses for a while longer. When they got close, they dismounted and walk the rest of the way. Their horses were dog tired.
Before he knew it, they arrived at the gates. Bruno was shocked to see that a “village” had a stone wall, guards, and a gate. The guards were fairly lax, which also surprised Bruno. What was the point of having guards if they weren’t going to stop anyone. It then occurred to him that a certain jingling was missing from the monotonous sounds of travel…
They traveled into the village center to an inn called Pig Tits. How charming. They tied up their horses outside and were right about to walk through the swinging double wooden doors when someone was tossed out into the street! “And stay out! At least until tomorrow or until you have more money!” They heard the clatter of glass smashing, and wood being busted into splinters.
“I just had an idea, let’s go for a walk.” said Matar. Even though Bruno was tired from travel and could really have used a nap before supper, he quite agreed. There was nothing wrong with a little horse play, as long as he was the one doing it. He didn’t need to stick his nose in messy business such as that.
They walked for a bit before they entered the outdoor bazaar. One thing he noticed was that everyone, everyone had their hood pulled down tightly. He had a small coughing fit as someone passed him with a thick pipe and a thick plume of smoke trailing behind him. They passed through a portion of the bazaar where everyone was smoking something. The smells were diverse, thick, and overwhelming. His eyes stung. He blinked heavily and tried to keep up with with Matar in front of him. Finally they were on the other side of the bazaar and they decided to walk around the perimeter to get back to the inn.
Once back at the now calm Pig Tits, they approached the bar to talk to the keeper about getting a room for the night. Bruno was about to sit next to a slim fellow who kept slamming the table and shouting something. At the last minute Matar grabbed him and switch seats with him. Now Bruno was sandwiched between Matar and an enormous hulking beast. The man next to him, hood drawn down tight, leaned heavily on the bar and gripped the mug, not the handle, of his beer. His stool legs bowed with unease under him. His armor had bone spikes from an apparently gruesome monster which stood upright on his shoulder pads and down the length of the back of his chest plate, giving him a dragon-like aura.
Matar leaned over and whispered in Bruno’s ear, “What ever you do, just don’t talk. For the love of the Queen’s peace, don’t say a word.”
Matar finally got the Keep’s attention and asked if he had an opening for a week. The inn keeper told him no, but he’d be happy to serve them beer and meat pies. Matar insisted that he’d pay double if necessary. The inn keeper raised his eyes at that and said something had just opened up. 203. No rats in this one, and they were allowed to take up as many girls as they liked. Matar ordered beers for the two of them and started making friends with the scrawny punk next to him. After several thirsty gulps, Bruno was feeling pretty bold. He decided to make friends with the fellow next to him too, just as Matar was doing. He asked the chum how his day was. The brute didn’t respond. The din of the inn was pretty loud, maybe he just didn’t hear Bruno. So he repeated himself louder. Still no response. Maybe the question was the problem. This time Bruno asked loudly “Where are you from?”. Matar started getting nervous but Bruno didn’t notice. Bruno was now yelling “I said, where are you from???” And the brute would have kept on ignoring him except that Bruno tapped him on the fore arm to get his attention. The brute whipped his arm and stood up in a hustle. His stool fell to the floor. He panted heavily. Bruno was now painfully aware of the 350 Queen’s pound, 6 and a half Queen’s foot high man looming over him. The brute was now panting heavier and heavier. He wound up a punch. But before he could release, quick as a river, Matar was holding the brute by the bicep.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait. There seems to be a bit of a mix up.” said Matar. “Let me explain, this is my dwarven friend, Gabbro. He means, you no harm, he’s just a little over-friendly … and drunk at the moment. Please, please forgive his intrusion. It won’t happen again.”
The brute huffed and puffed a few times. Finally he wound up again as if to strike. And again Matar grabbed him by the bicep. “Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Listen, I’m not supposed to talk about it, but Gabbro here is, ahem, a geologist of sorts if you know what I mean, and he has certain knowledge of, ahem, a certain quarry if you know what I mean. I’m merely a cartographer…” Matar paused, unsure if the brute understood either his subtle way of talking, or if he knew what a geologist or cartographer were. it was hard to tell due to standing behind the man.
“… I make maps. It’s my job to know where things are in relation to other things. When I heard about this supposedly virgin quarry, I was extremely skeptical. Everyone knows that when a dwarf tells you about a such and such ruby or emerald they found as big as their fist, you can be sure it’s as big as their thumb at best. Well if you heard the stories my friend Gabbro tells about this quarry, then we rich beyond our wildest dreams. It occurs to me, that if we are going on such an adventure, and we wish to return with news and not be swarmed by thieves and crooks, we better have a good strongman accompany us, watch our back and the such; for a fair price of course. Say, you wouldn’t be looking for some work would you?”
Hook. Line. And sinker. The brute let it all sink in for a bit before responding. “How much?”
“300 Queen’s Mint”
“Hmmm. Not bad, not bad. Make it 400.”
“Very well, 400.”
“How do I know you won’t abandon me in the night?” the brute asked skeptically.
“Ah, you are right to ask. We’ll pay you half upfront. Right now in fact, if you like.”
The brute considered this. “Hmmm, why don’t I just smash your face in right now and take the 400, then I don’t have to do any work and I can keep drinking.”
Matar crafted his response carefully. He wasn’t sure if the brute was too dumb to realize that there would be more gold if they succeeded, or if the brute was too smart to believe the gold mine existed.
“Because the 400 Queen’s Mint is in my room right now, and you don’t know which room we’re in.”
Humpf. The brute snorted. “Fine. Go get it. Where do you need me?” Whew! Apparently he didn’t notice that they hadn’t been up to their room yet, or over heard the room number. Matar explained that they needed him to guard the door over night. They were in 203. He would pay the inn keeper for the use of the room across the hall so that the brute could listen for any trouble. They would leave at the crack of dawn. Meet outside the gates, make sure you aren’t being followed. If anyone asks, you don’t know us, and we don’t know you. And with that Matar walked upstairs and back… actually pretty loudly. He dropped the bag into the open palm of the brute… in front of the whole tavern.
“One more thing, I’m Mateo, what’s your name?”
“Around here, they call me Czawlytko”
“Well, Czawlytko, I look forward to seeing you bright and early tomorrow. Gabbro, let’s call it a night. I’ll bring supper up later, you need to sober up before you get us into even more trouble. It’s not even sundown. By the Queen’s mustache, I don’t know how we’ve remained friends for all this time.”
The two of them walked up the stairs to their room. Matar calmly, and Bruno staggering and stumbling behind him. When the door was shut behind them, Matar closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed heavily. “Why me, why me? Ok here’s the deal, we’re going to lay low tonight.”
“Oh good because I am exhausted.” said Bruno.
“Yes me too.” said Matar.
Bruno started to undress and get ready for bed. Matar said “What are you doing?”
“I’m getting ready for bed, Master! I’m viciously tired! You just said we’re going to lay low tonight.”
Matar calmly and silently put his fingers to his lips.
“Ah yes,” Matar said loudly. “I just meant that you should wash up before you go to sleep.”
He threw a new cloak at Bruno and put a new one on himself, then drew it down tight over his face. Bruno did the same. Matar produced a rope and tied it to the bed post, double knotted. Then he threw his sack over his shoulder and lowered himself out the window. Bruno did the same.
They landed behind the inn, walked into the woods for a bit, made a large circle, and emerged into the bazaar. Surprisingly the bazaar was even busier at night! People moved quicker, talked quieter and smoked harder. It was easy to get lost in the crowd. Eventually they made it out of the bazaar and into a different inn not far from the Pig Tits, this one called “Ave Riva” it was fairly quiet inside. They got a room, picked up some meat pies and went straight to their room.
“What was the point of paying the brute to watch our door, if we’re not even going to stay there?” asked Bruno.
“This city is covered in fleas. Our friend Czawlytko is sure to tell his comrades about his new rich clients, who know where an untapped mine is, who are staying in room 203. They’ll be waiting all night for us to emerge from our room in the morning, to jump us. Either they’ll threaten to kill us if we don’t lead them to the mine, rob us blind, beat us to a pulp, sell us into slavery, or all of the above. Hopefully they fight each other over who gets to beat us up first. Luckily, I didn’t pay him!”
“What? What did you place in his hand?”
“They’re enchanted rocks, Bruno. The same thing I handed to the lazy dogs who are supposed to be Gate Guards. Marguo has been working on the enchantment for almost a year now and it’s paid off splendidly. It could use some refinement, the bag is a little too heavy which makes it suspicious. As long as they don’t open the bag, it’s money to them! Well with the vermin scurrying over to the Pig Tits, we can sup and sleep in peace.”