Chapter 22: Scheme
Gilmir spent most of the day eating and sleeping. He needed much of both. Hobble was out and about for hours, and they did not see each other much until evening. After sundown, they sat in the inn’s common room sharing a bowl of stew and a bottle of wine. Gilmir sat with his back against the wall, in one corner of the room. From where he sat, he could keep an eye on the door, the counter, and the stairs to the second floor where they had their room. From the other side of the table, Hobble yawned.
‘Tired?’ Gilmir asked.
’Yeah, I didn’t sleep well last night. I kept dreaming about shards ‘n’ stones ‘n’ falling stars.’
The door went up, and a dwarf walked in. He had black hair and a beard. A wolf pelt lay over his shoulders, and he wore leather trousers and mail armour. On his back, he carried a giant axe and a backpack. In his belt, several knives hung and a wand stuck out. He wore rings on most fingers and a pendant around his neck. The newcomer scanned the room. He moved to a free table where he dumped the axe and the backpack before he slumped down in a chair.
Hobble seemed to realise something caught Gilmir’s attention and turned. Spinning back, he slid his chair back. ‘I’ll sit by your side. Can’t see anythin’ from over here.’ He rose and came around the table, sitting down in a chair beside the elf.
‘That is just silly,’ Gilmir responded, ‘we can’t both sit on the same side.’
‘Feel free to move,’ Hobble said, stretching his short legs out under the table.
Gilmir considered it but decided he would rather be uncomfortable than have his back turned to the entire room.
‘Who’s that?’ Hobble asked in a low voice, as if he was talking to himself, his eyes resting on the dwarf.
‘I don’t know. Probably some kind of treasure hunter coming back to town.’
‘How you figure?’
‘The rings, the pendant, the wand: he is no soldier. The large axe, which I reckon he knows how to use, is battle-worn, but well tended. The road dust on his clothes, the mud on his boots. Just my guess.’
‘Let’s go have a chat.’ Hobble was already on his feet, limping towards the dwarf’s table.
Slowly, feeling all his aches, Gilmir followed the halfling. The thief was right about one thing; the dwarf was the most interesting figure at the inn.
‘Had I had the coin, I would buy you a beer, master dwarf,’ Hobble said, pulling out a chair.
‘I can buy my own ale, thank you, short one,’ the dwarf replied, glancing at Hobble before he slapped a coin purse on the table and gestured for the serving girl.
‘Do you mind if I pull up a chair, soldier?’ Gilmir said.
‘Suit yourself, tall one, there aren’t many rules in Sha’ton. Even an elf is free to do almost as he pleases.’ The dwarf looked him over before he added, ‘Almost.’
Gilmir ignored the comment and took a seat.
‘Besides, I haven’t been a soldier for a half a century,’ the dwarf said.
‘So what do you do for a living?’ Hobble asked.
‘I am a collector,’ the dwarf replied. ‘Yeah, and before you ask. I collect trophies, artefacts, missing items, art, pendants, weapons, almost anything valuable.’ He waved for the serving girl. ‘Yes, yes, I’m careful.’
Hobble shot Gilmir a glance. Gilmir could not tell if the look was triggered by something the dwarf listed or if the last statement caused it.
‘I am Hobble, and this is Gilmir.’
‘Tracks,’ the dwarf said while glancing around the room.
‘So how is business these days in the collector trade?’ Hobble asked.
‘Not bad, not sad,’ Tracks replied, before ordering food and beer from the serving girl. He placed his backpack under the table and leaned the axe against the wall. All the time, his mouth kept moving, and a muttering escaped his lips.
‘I guess the starfall changed the playing field?’ Hobble pressed on with his questions.
The dwarf glanced at Hobble. His mouth stopped moving, and his eyes shone with a new intensity. To Hobble’s credit, he kept Tracks’s gaze. For long moments, the two stared at each other. Gilmir studied the dwarf. He still looked into Hobble’s eyes, as if he tried to read his soul. Suddenly, his mouth started moving again. No words, just mumbles. His hand went to a pouch on his belt. Then he turned away, shifting his gaze towards the bar. ‘Where’s that food and drink?’
Hobble shot Gilmir a look. Gilmir gave a tiny shake of his head in response. He was not sure what the halfling had been asking, but he was sure about the answer. Hobble needed to back off. The dwarf appeared dangerous and unstable. The worst combination of features he knew. Except for lovesick giants. And drunk female trolls. Either way, Hobble needed to back off. The halfling had turned his gaze towards the dwarf again.
‘Why you call yourself Tracks?’
‘I don’t, or at least, I didn’t. An old friend of mine started calling me that. And it stuck. It seems I can be quiet and hard to find when I want, but he kept telling me I always leave tracks. At first, there was only him calling me so. Later, others started too. Soon everyone called me that. Nowadays, no one knows me by any other name.’
‘There are worse things to be called,’ Gilmir said.
‘You speak truth there, elf!’
With that, the trio went silent for a while. Soon the serving girl came with food and ale for the dwarf. Tracks gave the girl some coins and said, ‘Thank you, Chris!’
Chris smiled, curtsied and turned, hurrying off.
Gilmir followed the girl with his gaze. Her hand had given him pause. She was young, even by human standards. Her movements were quick and sure, navigating the busy room with confidence. A leather bracelet hung loose on her slender wrist, and brown hair fell to her shoulders. Her red dress was faded, and a broad leather belt went almost two rounds around her waist. The hand had been calloused.
Soon after, Gilmir and Hobble said their farewells to Tracks and went back to their room. They had little coin to spend, and Gilmir still needed lots of rest. Back in their small second-floor room, Gilmir lay down on his bed, crossing his arms under his head. Hobble sat down in a chair by the small window. He put his short legs on the table, leaned back and stared out on the darkening sky.
‘We need money,’ the halfling said.
‘Yeah,’ Gilmir said, and yawned.
‘How do you usually earn your living?’ Gilmir closed his eyes.
‘Lately, I have been fighting in the arena.’
‘How is that working out for you?’
‘I earn some since I am a club-footed halfling.’
‘You mean you earn some because others underestimate you while you pretend to have a deformed foot?’
‘How much do you earn?’ Gilmir asked.
‘It’s the “Bits Arena”, so just a few bits each match. Lately, I have been winning too often, so I might have to move on to one of the other arenas.’
‘What’s the next step?’
‘Hmm, probably “the Rock” in the old mining tunnels, or the “Cage Arena” by the south gate.’
‘Do you fight the arenas for money?’
‘Yes, why else?’ Hobble said, flicking a coin into the air with his thumb and catching it again.
‘Perhaps you should lose some matches first. That way we can earn more by playing the underdog later.’
‘I can bet on you.’
’Ah, I see. So I can get my firm, little ass kicked for a few matches, so that you can use my coins to bet that I will eventually win a match. I will risk my health, my reputation and my handsome face AND my coin … And your contribution to this team effort would be?’
‘I am obviously the brains behind the operation.’ Gilmir tapped his temple, his eyes still closed. ‘And I will earn the coin by betting against you in the first few matches and then investing handsomely in your victory later! It is a two-player scheme. Both parts are essential. It’s not my fault that you have a deformed foot. You fit the part like a sword in an orc’s heart. And, I can pull off being a gambler. I have done worse.’
Hobble did not answer, but Gilmir could feel his stare. He tried not to smile. After a few moments, he broke the silence. ‘We can land the final details of the plan tomorrow. Good night, champion!’
Gilmir turned on his side and fell asleep with a smile on his face.