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Chapter 12: Of Merchants and Mages

I had no trouble locating Wind Spire Goods and Trade, the building was a prominent feature located near the center of town. As I entered, I found the shop stuffed to the rafters with all manner of goods; everything from building materials and farm equipment to kitchen staples and household goods. I was very impressed. Working my way through the racks and shelves that stored all the mercantile had to offer was an epic adventure in and of itself. Finally I came to the sales counter, a younger man greeted me. He seemed to be only a handful of years older than me, so I could only assume that he was the owner’s son, Bram.

“Ah, a customer,” he greeted me warmly, but there was an unmistakable spark of mischief in his eye.

His essence thrummed with the wholesome essence of earth, I observed as I approached the counter with my best smile plastered to my lips. He couldn’t be all that bad, but as Balthazar always said; to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

“Are you the proprietor?” I asked innocently.

“No, that would be my Father,” he answered honestly, “He’ out of the store on business. How can I be of service?”

His tone was pleasant and reassuring, yet I couldn’t help feeling like a rabbit with the hounds close by. Tread with care, I told myself before speaking.

“I’m looking to purchase some heavy winter gear and well …” I began, but then allowed my word to die in an unsure whimper. “Maybe I should come back when your Father is here.” I started to turn for the door.

“My Father won’t return until tomorrow evening,” he informed me. “I’m quite sure I can be of assistance. What did you need in the way of winter gear?”

I returned my attention to him and tried to look the part of a dignified mage’s apprentice. I could almost hear Balthazar’s voice; theatrics is part and parcel to magic my girl.

“Well, let’s see,” I began. “A fur overcoat with mittens and a hat, a thick quilted horse blanket, and some leather scraps.”

“I see,” he sighed. The hint of mischief was now a gleaming. “Well, I do have those items available for purchase … but they’re not cheap. The coat, hat, and mittens will cost you 500 gold, the blanket will cost another 200, and I suppose I could let the leather scraps go for 50.”

750 gold, I though as I worked to maintain a business like façade, I wasn’t even sure that I had that much coin on me.

“Walk away, Companion,” Uriel purred into my mind. “Make him think he’s losing the sale and he’ll be more willing to negotiate.”

I gave Bram the sternest look I could muster as I slowly nodded my head. “The Innkeeper told me that your father is a successful and honorable business man, it’s a shame that his son doesn’t follow in his footsteps. When you’re ready to do business with me, and not play stupid games, I can be found at The Silver Bear.”

With that, I turned and walked for the door, but I only made it half way before Bram stopped me.

“You don’t understand,” he blurted weekly.

I remained still in my tracks, but didn’t turn to face him.

“My older brother, Eric, he was supposed to take over the shop,” Bram continued. “But he decided he wanted to go to University instead. Eric was Pa’s favorite, he …” His voice trailed off as he allowed whatever he was about to say to die in his mouth. He was silent for several heartbeats before he continued, “I just want to impress my father … to prove that I can be a good shopkeeper too and that he can trust me.”

I remained where I stood with my back turned and facing the door. While he spoke, I focused on hearing his word through The Unity and Light; his words were both sincere and honest. Still facing away from him, I began to speak.

“You have a reputation in town, Bram, and it isn’t a good one” I said solemnly. “In spite of that, you father leaves you in charge of his shop while he’s away on business … which proves he does trust you, otherwise he would have taken an apprentice to watch the shop.”

“I never thought of that,” Bram muttered to himself.

“If you want to prove that you can be a good shop keeper, stop trying to cheat your customers.” I insisted as I finally turned to face him. “What price would your father ask for the items that I require.”

His gaze dropped to the counter in front of him as he considered my question. He remained engrossed in his thoughts for a time and then, with a heavy sigh, he finally looked up at me.

“50 gold for the coat, hat, and mittens,” he began quietly, “15 for the horse blanket, and he would likely through in the leather scraps at no charge.”

The price was still rather steep, but I was certain this time that it was fair. I returned to the counter to do business and, after a few moments, I counted out the necessary coins. The transaction left my small purse considerably lighter, but at least Argo, Uriel, and I wouldn’t freeze solid before we reached the Temple of The Unity.

“One more thing,” Bram stopped me as I packed up my haul. “Take these, as a gift from me.” He laid two pairs of thick grey woolen stockings on top of my pile. “Thank you.”

He didn’t need to say more than that, I understood. I left the mercantile with a sense that Bram was going to make his father very proud in the coming years. It made me feel good inside to know that I’d helped the young man find his way.

I stashed my newly acquired winter gear at the stable, and proceeded to search for Hippolytus’ Magic Emporium. Before my arrival last night, I hadn’t considered visiting a mage while in Elk Haven. This stop was the cat dragon’s idea.

“Why am I visiting Hippolytus?” I spoke under my breath and I had no doubt that Uriel would hear me. I knew many mages by name, as Balthazar often spoke of his colleagues, but this mage was unfamiliar to me.

“To acquire a talisman for warding off glacier bears,” he replied matter-of-factly. “If I were in my natural form, bears wouldn’t be an issue as they are afraid of dragons. As I am now, I am unable to protect you.”

The thought of encountering a glacier bear made me shudder. While most bear species in Everlast slept in their dens through the long cold months of winter, the glacier bear did not. Naturalists who studied the creatures were baffled by their strange winter behavior, but they generally agreed it must contribute to their overtly aggressive nature.

“What if he doesn’t have such a talisman?” I asked, continuing to whisper. Even though I tried to speak under my breath and not draw undue attention, a pair of washer women drawing water from a nearby well glared at me disapprovingly. Talking to one’s self was commonly attributed to madness.

“You need not speak, Companion,” Uriel purred against my mind, “simply think what you wish me to know, and I will hear you. It wouldn’t do either of us any good for you to be locked in an asylum, now would it?” After a brief pause, he continued, “The Mountains north of here are home to a great many glacier bears. No village mage in these parts that’s worth his salt would be without such talismans for sale.”

After make a few inquires as to where Hippolytus might be found, I was pointed in the direction of his tower. The structure wasn’t a proper tower, but rather a small squat farmhouse with a modest two story tower-like addition tacked onto one side. The withered remains of herbs in the front garden poked up like skeletons from beneath the crusty snow. There was a stable on the end of the house opposite the truncated tower; it was occupied by lonely bay mare. I continued up the walk until I found myself before the door, the sing above it read Hippolytus’ Magic Emporium. I was about to knock, but Uriel insisted that I should simply enter. As a mage’s apprentice, this went against my better judgment, but I pushed the door open gently and slipped inside.

I found Hippolytus in the main room; his back was to me as he stood before a work table. From what I could tell, he seemed engaged in making various potions.

“If you’re looking for charity,” he grumped without turning around, “then you’ve come here in vain. This is a place of business, not an almshouse. Get out!”

“Say nothing,” Uriel insisted.

I remained silent as the cat dragon suggested, but as I did, I opened myself to the Unity and examined Hippolytus’ aura. Fire was the dominate element that crackled and seethed within him; Hippolytus was clearly a fire magus.

“Are you still here,” his tone vibrated with annoyance as he turned to face me. “Be gone!” he shouted as his trembling finger pointed to the door behind me. “I have no time for urchins and waifs, can’t you see I’m in the middle of very important work.”

In response to his lambast, I remained as still as a corps and as silent as the grave.

“Are you def, or merely stupid,” he barked as a ball of flames erupted from his palm. He had every intention of hurling it at me; like most fire magi, Hippolytus had little in the way of patients.

When he reared back to cast his fire ball, I calmly broke my silence. “I am Kerri, apprentice to Master Balthazar of the Light.”

“Apprentice,” he muttered as the ball of flame in his hand died away. “Then your master has chosen an imbecile as his apprentice. You should have spoken when you entered … or better yet, you should have knocked.”

I wanted to say something sharp to him in response, but I held my tongue.

“Why has your Master sent you to disturb me?” he asked curtly as he returned to his work table. If he thought that I’d come at Balthazar’s insistence, I would let him continue to think it.

“My Master seeks a talisman,” I insisted, “to ward off glacier bears.”

He turned to glare at me and his expression was one of puzzlement. “The Master Mage of Light is so inept at magic that he cannot produce a simple talisman to ward off glacier bears … so he sends his imbecile of an apprentice to fetch one … from me.” Hippolytus continued to stare at me, “A likely story,” he huffed. “The truth girl, before I lose my patience.”

“I am Balthazar’s apprentice,” I insisted as I thrust my right hand baring my Father’s signet forward into view.

“Yes, of course you are,” he dismissed sourly, “you’re exactly the type of whelp that the old doddle-head would take on as an apprentice.” He settled into a throne like chair near his work table and continued to regard me with distaste. “What I mean to know girl, is why you are here. Balthazar didn’t send you, of that I am certain. Explain yourself.”

Be cautious Companion,” Uriel muttered in my thoughts. “It may not be wise to disclose the true nature of our mission.”

I was slightly confused by the cat dragon’s warning; by ‘the true nature of our mission’ did he mean my quest to obtain a staff or my journey to the Temple of Unity.

Both,” he purred softly.

“My Master has sent me on a quest,” I began cautiously. “I have with me only such supplies as my horse and I can carry. Everything else I must obtain along the way or produce myself. It is meant to be a rite of passage as I am soon to advance from apprentice to novice. Crafting such a talisman is still beyond my skill level, therefore I must acquire one … from you.”

Hippolytus sat in silence for a time, but his probing eyes remained fixed on me. Finally, he sighed and pointed to a small round table near the rooms glowing hearth. “There are two cups there, and the flagon is filled with spiced honey wine. Pour me a measure of it and, if your Master permits you to imbibe, you may help yourself to some as well. Consider it an extension of Unity’s blessing of hospitality.”

I did as he requested, filling his cup with a generous serving of the sweat spicy beverage. When I came to him bearing only his cup, a grunt of amusement vibrated in his throat.

“Not surprising,” he quipped as he took the cup from my hand and dismissing my service with a nod, “Balthazar is such a prude.”

I watched quietly as the fire mage slackened his thirst with the honey wine. I judged that he finished about half the measure before he set the cup down and rose slowly to his feet. He didn’t speak as he moved towards a cabinet on the far wall. When he returned to face me once again, a strange yet satisfied smile curled his lips; like a fox that managed to slink unseen past a score of hound and find his way into the hen house.

“You’ll need two talismans,” he informed me, “one for yourself, and one for your horse.” I shuddered as he slipped the leather thong bearing a small hide pouch over my head. The other one he pressed into my palm, “braid in into your horse’s mane, be sure that it is tied in tightly … otherwise you might awaken one morning to find that your mount has been eaten in the night.”

“What if they don’t work?” I asked looking down doubtfully at the little hide pouch that now hung against my chest.

“If they don’t work girl,” he began in a tone that sounded more like the hissing of flames than human speech, “then no one will ever be the wiser … now will they?”

When I reached for my coin purse to pay him, he stopped me with a wave of his hand. “No coin is required. Simply tell Balthazar when next you see him that … Hippolytus has paid his debt. He will know what I mean. Now off with you, I have important work to do.”

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