“Here it is.” Arthen held out the pendant reluctantly hanging by the string to the trinket pawner, his hands shaking with weakness.
The pawner took the pendant from his outreached hand and examined the wood with a magnifying spectacle. After a few quick turns and about three seconds of examining the seller looked back to Arthen. “Seven slices.”
“Cow meat? No, bread.”
“I–I don’t know. That was my mother’s.”
Arthen hesitated. He had kept his eyes on the pendant instead of the pawner the whole time after he let go. Even after stumbling through the streets of Acres enduring his longest period of hunger, Arthen felt weaker than he had ever felt during this negotiation.
“Can I take some time to think about it?”
“Has to be now. I can’t promise these slices will be here much longer.”
The seller made no gesture after that. He just continued to stare at Arthen.
“Well, I guess–”
“Hold on, I’ll buy that,” came a voice from behind Arthen.
For a second, he thought it was the voice that had spoken to him outside of Abner’s house, but when Arthen turned around he found a physical person from where it came. A man walked over from the other side of the shop. He was wearing patched clothing and a worn out Brockway cape of green. His face was not very handsome, but not ugly. As best as Arthen could describe, the man looked “modest”. What threw Arthen off was his peculiar haircut as it was cut very bowl-like around his head. But his voice was deep and genuine and Arthen would never had thought a voice could come from a man so scrawny as he.
In the man’s hand he held out two golden Laurel coins. “How’s that for it?”
Arthen’s eyes widened. Another offer? And even higher? A lot higher. He turned to the pawner looking for another bid.
“Take it,” he said tiredly, throwing the pendant back to Arthen and walking away into the back of the shop.
The man handed one Laurel to Arthen and Arthen did the payment ritual of breathing on the coin for its purity. He then nodded shyly as approval. The man handed Arthen the other Laurel and Arthen once again reluctantly held out the pendant.
“Oh, keep that,” he said.
Arthen gave a confused look. “No please, sir. It’s part of the trade.”
The man was rifling through his pockets not really paying attention to Arthen’s reply. “When was the last time you ate?”
Arthen could barely remember himself.
“Well, come on. Keep the Laurels and let’s have food together.”
Arthen didn’t move. “If you want the pendant so badly you don’t have to kill me for it, just take it and go.”
The man cocked an eyebrow underneath his straight cut bangs.
“You don’t have to put on a ruse to take it. Here, just take it now.” Arthen held out both the money and the pendant in surrender.
The man walked up to him, smiled, and pulled out a knife. Arthen winced. But then the man flipped the blade in his hand and presented the hilt to Arthen. “You are very cautious. I respect that. But I also respect trust. Keep your pendant, gold, and this knife, and if I try to harm you, you may use it on me.” He raised both eyebrows now still holding the knife for Arthen. Arthen didn’t move.
“Food?” the man said.
Arthen, now feeling his starvation again, nodded. The man smiled and replaced the held out knife with an open hand. “I am called Booker,” he said.
Arthen took his hand. “I am called Gleim.”
Booker’s smile broadened “Well, Gleim, as you are skin and bones and possibly injured by the looks of it,” he pointed to Arthen’s right hand, “it would be a great honor to get you some food. I have a colleague in town who has been trying to procure supplies and I am already running late to meet with him at the local well, Kornak’s Tabernacle. Let us not keep him waiting any longer.”
Arthen put the two gold Laurels in the small travel sack Abner had given him and returned the necklace and pendant around his neck.
Kornak’s Tabernacle was a small place around the corner of the main square of the town. It was not as lively or rambunctious as the local well from the Acres Arthen remembered. Depressing looking folk who were clearly not drinking to celebrate filled the musty walls. The two of them found the back of the well and seated at a table in the corner was a man with numerous pieces of paper stacked in front of him. They strode over to him and Booker greeted him.
Sitting down, the man looked taller than both of them but after standing, Arthen found that this man was shorter than he was. He had a youthful face with stern eyebrows, but practically all of his other features were hidden under his leather flapped cap he wore that covered his scalp and down the sides of his face. He wore clothes similar to Booker’s stitching and length, but the way he tugged at his sleeves and squared his shoulders made it seem to Arthen that they were not all too comfortable on him.
The capped man nodded to Booker, then spotted Arthen behind him and slightly raised one of his stern eyebrows. “Hello.”
Arthen smiled weakly.
“Frayne,” Booker said, “this is a friend I made in town. Gleim here has not had a meal in a while, and seemed new to town so I offered him to have a meal with us.”
Frayne turned to Booker with his eyebrow cocked even more. “Really?” he said curiously.
“I don’t have to. I have some money now, so I should actually–”
“Nonsense! You’ll have a good time. Excuse me, miss.” he called for the barmaid. “May we have a chicken for the table?”
It amazed Arthen how brisk, but in a very polite tone, Booker talked to people. He seemed to command power with a very mellow and small voice.
“Great,” Frayne said, with a tone of defeat.
Booker sat down across from Frayne and pulled out a stool for Arthen right next to him.
“So–what don’t we have?” Booker said.
Frayne didn’t reply but made such a fast glance at Arthen and back to Booker that Arthen thought he imagined it. Booker simply nodded.
Frayne sighed, pulled a torn piece of paper from under one of his books, and said, “We have pretty much everything except rope and, as you can probably imagine, some kind of interpreter. For the life of me I don’t see how a whole town could be out of rope.”
“With Sásta in such a shortage, I assume people are using the rope to make other things, like nooses. Duncaster probably disowned this town after we took it. Embargoed all trade here.”
“It’s not that much of a problem, I can probably make something with items we find on the way there. Most of these items on the list are just to be careful. But we do need an interpreter. And damn, I figured we’d be able to find someone who speaks Stahlg this far north.”
Arthen’s ears perked up at this.
“Do you want a bowl of stew, Gleim?” Booker asked seeing Arthen’s sudden attention.
Arthen had been pretending not to listen to the conversation for fear of seeming rude and was not ready to jump in. Before he could reply, Booker had already flagged down the soup maiden and she brought Arthen a bowl of thick hot stew.
Not long after, the chicken had arrived and the three of them were served with old wine and small cakes of cornbread and wet butter with it. Booker made sure Arthen was served the most chicken. Both the men ate in a more sophisticated manner than what Arthen was used to, with Frayne being by far the most polite, actually using his knife and fork together harmoniously. Arthen tried his best to eat as conspicuous as possible.
Frayne and Booker continued their conversation about provisions and how they were to acquire and interpreter. There was a tug-of-war argument between them of whether the interpreter was necessary, Frayne insisted it was.
“I don’t understand Stahlg all that well, even if it is supposedly a simple language. But a language so simple can lead compliment to insult easily. There aren’t many good books that teach the language because Stahlg is a very oral language with heavy roots–one of the elder Dimanth tongues–meant for speaking more than writing. Their alphabet consists of very short and primitive runes. And with our short time span, I can’t pick it up that quickly on the way.”
“Amazing how two smart fellows like us didn’t bother to think about needing a translator until we were already over halfway there,” Booker chuckled.
Frayne was apparently not amused.
Arthen sat there awkwardly as they kept repeating their need for an interpreter. His hands felt sweaty all of a sudden and even though he was laden with food, his stomach felt higher than usual as he listened intently to their back-and-forth.
“There is an idiom that the Stahlgs use about leadership that we should use to show some prior knowledge of their culture, hopefully to appease them.”
“In your Treodac tongue, it roughly means ‘The burning torch leads the way with the oil from his predecessors.”
“Oh, that’s lovely.”
“In Stahlg, it should be ‘Fjlorn du Plum e’corfi delorum rekt.’”
“Yes…” Booker replied in monotone.
Frayne was pouring over his book. “Something’s not right about that. It doesn’t fit the right grammar, or something.”
“You’re using the wrong word for torch,” Arthen spoke.
They both turned to look at him.
Arthen took their silence as a sign to continue. He nervously tried to look at both of them at the same time as he talked. “Sorry–but, when you use the word ‘Plum’ in that context, it actually would mean ‘daylight’ and not ‘fire’ which is what I think you’re trying to say. The word for torch in Stahlg is–well–gleim.”
Booker let out a friendly laugh. “So your name is Torch?”
“Well, ‘gleim’ is a word that is used to describe many different things. I was named in reference to ‘firefly’. But ‘gleim’ can refer to anything that shines light as a guide.”
Frayne gave Arthen a look of agreement, then looked to his friend.
Booker gave Frayne a wide smile and called back to the maiden to say, “We’ll take to chickens, please.”