"I don't suppose you got any tusks from those trolls you definitely killed near Arstwood?"
"Well, you see, I would have. But all of them lost their tusks to cavities I'm afraid. Not many troll dentists I'd imagine."
"Right." Mary bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling. "That's such a shame."
"But I did get this." Rike dropped his bag onto the counter with a clank.
Mary leaned over. "What is in there? Rocks?"
"Close." Rike dumped the contents out. "Veryss iron."
"You actually found some?" Mary picked up an ingot and brought it close to her face. True enough, the telltale green veins ran through the ore like spiderwebs. She didn't think Rike would be able to find any, talented as he was.
"You doubted me?"
"All the time."
Rike clutched a hand over his heart and let out an offended gasp. "You hurt me Mary."
His acting skills were rather lacking, as the grin never left his face.
"My deepest apologies." Mary reached under the counter to grab a coin purse. "Will this cover your hurt feelings? And the iron as well?"
Rike stroked his neatly trimmed beard in contemplation. "I don't know. My feelings are expensive."
Mary scoffed to hide a laugh and tossed him the purse. "Don't spend it all at once."
The purse bounced off his chest and he managed to catch it with some floundering. "I'm right here. You can hand it to me Mary."
"I'll keep that in mind next time." Mary inspected another piece of ore and set it in a box to take to the back room.
Rike muttered something under his breath that sounded an awful lot like "so mean." He meandered to the front of the store, occasionally glancing forlornly over his shoulder. Mary continued to place the iron in the box.
How did he manage to take so long to get to the door? Her shop wasn't that large.
Rike rested a hand on the doorframe, his sadness forgotten. "Are you coming over later?"
"Sure. You can tell me more about your daring adventures." She inspected a rather prominent strip of green in the iron.
He beamed. "I'll see you then."
Mary set the last bar into the box as Rike left and set it on a shelf behind her.
She stretched her arms and let out a breath, turning in place to take stock of her shop. The knives on the wall hung in perfect order, all with wooden handles carved by herself and sheathed with leather from Rike's previous hunts. She nudged a bowl of beads away from the edge of the counter. Her fingers itched to string them together, but Bridget preferred that job, so she'd leave it for tomorrow.
She dropped another log into the fire. It flickered and popped with the new wood, sending specs of ash into the air. She dusted the ashes from the hem of her skirt, but the fire only spat more as a gust of wind swirled around her.
The bell chimed, or more like clanked, as it was cracked by repeated swings of the door.
Mary shivered. The spring wind bit right through her sleeves and invaded her shop, never missing an opportunity to sap the morning sun's warmth.
"Don't hold the door open." It sounded like an order to even her ears. "Please," she added as an afterthought.
Four Ajerchan traders—one of whom immediately made a beeline to the small collection of knives—stepped inside. Two of them hung back near the front. Neither nodded or so much as glanced at her in acknowledgment, as they were engrossed in conversation, laughing at a joke she hadn't heard. If they hadn't closed the door, she would have thought they dismissed her entirely.
The last trader approached Mary. Her trousers were dirt-stained and her hair messily pulled away from her face, but her eyes were bright and kind.
"Looking for anything?" Mary asked.
"Yes." She tucked a strand of dark hair behind her ear. "Do you have leather? The waterproof kind."
"Of course. How much?" Mary bent over to retrieve the smaller pieces she kept under the counter.
"Maybe a square foot? Enough to add a few straps on my belt." She lifted her shirt to reveal a waterskin hanging from a half-torn strap. Several grooves along her belt indicated where she may have attached other items at one point.
"All worn out huh?" Mary caught a glimpse of three red scrapes across her belly before the trader smoothed her shirt back into place.
Her hand unconsciously skimmed over her own stomach, but she snatched it away when she realized what she was doing.
She spread the stack of leather across the counter, including several pieces already cut into strips.
"This one is fine." The woman held up a dark square.
"That will be four ril." Mary stacked the rest of the leather pieces into a neat pile.
"Thanks." She smiled, sliding the coins across the counter.
"Are you on your way to Bregain?" Usually the traffic from Ajercho picked up a few weeks from now, when the snow melted completely. Perhaps they didn't mind the cold.
She brushed another stray hair out of her face. "Yes we—"
"Actually we're on our way back to Ajercho." The man who took an interest in her knife display set one on the counter. On closer inspection, he was oddly pale for an Ajerchan man. He could pass as Rillinian, even.
The woman's smile flattened and she gave him a stern look.
"Like she cares." The man shrugged. "Besides, this is almost certainly a front. I had a friend who—"
"This is a perfectly legal establishment." Mary swiped the knife. It was one she'd finished last week, with birds and wildflowers engraved on the handle.
"Mhmm. What's on the shelf?" He leaned over the counter, trying to see.
"Nothing interesting." She motioned for him to back up.
"Got anything interesting, then?" He tapped his nose.
Mary's eye twitched. "No."
He opened his mouth to protest, but the woman shot him a glare. "Leave it be, Ivo. You're making a fool of yourself."
"Ten ril, please." Mary held out her hand.
"That's on the expensive side for a knife, don't you think?" He smiled.
"Eight for the knife, two for not minding your business."
"I like you," he laughed.
I can't say the same, she thought.
"How about a trade?"
"Mm." Mary grunted, examining a loose thread on her sleeve.
He set something wrapped in cloth in front of her. "I found some Riolba root while up north."
At this point the woman slapped her forehead and stalked over to the two hanging by the door. ". . . can't believe you," she muttered.
"Isn't that on the expensive side?" Mary countered.
"It's for not minding my business."
Mary almost smiled at that.
She unwrapped the fabric to reveal a tangle of white roots stained with earth. Mary raised an eyebrow. "'Up north', you say?"
Where did he get it?
"What happened to 'mind your business'?" He winked, clearly not offended.
"It's a deal." She shook his hand.
"Ivo, if you're done . . . ?" The woman gestured outside.
"What's the rush?" he complained, but followed her out.
Mary wiped her hand on her skirt, and tossed the leather under the counter. The door creaked, announcing someone caught it before it closed. She folded her arms, having half a mind to curse at the next person who kept it open.
A man's muffled 'thank you' came from outside to whichever trader had held the door for him. "Are you Mary Howel?" He asked as the door finally closed.
"That's me." Mary took in her customer's appearance. Tall. Clean-shaven. Travel-worn clothes. He scratched behind an ear, tow-colored hair flopping into his eyes. He was Rillinian; although definitely not from this far south.
"My name is Harrison. I hear you and Rike take requests?"
"Depends on the request." Mary rested her elbows on the counter.
He tilted his head. "Is that riolba root?"
Mary mentally kicked herself for not immediately putting it away.
He tried to get a closer look but Mary promptly submerged the plant in a bowl of wooden beads. "No." She pushed the container to the side, stray beads cascading to the floor.
He clicked his tongue, unconvinced.
She stared him down. "Were you going to ask me for something?"
He dropped the subject, but she felt his skepticism. "I need something alive."
"I'm a carpenter, not a tracker." Mary shook her head, but continued, "Are you looking for a certain animal?"
He paused. "Have you heard the rumors of Blueblood sightings—"
Mary interrupted with a pained smile. "I know where this is going. And we do not—"
"May I finish?"
"No thank you." She waved him off. "Even if the 'sightings' held any merit, I'm not going to risk life and limb for any payment"—she eyed his dusty outfit—"you can give. Is there anything else I can help you with?"
He frowned. "What about Carafrín?"
Mary's breath caught in her throat. She examined the grains in the wood; a pattern she had all but memorized from months standing at this counter.
"I don't know what you mean." It was a coincidence, of course. Why would he know?
"I think you do." Harrison picked up a stray bead and tossed it in the bowl. "Because, from what I've heard, a certain Rike and Mary tracked down an assassin with nothing but his arrow to go off of."
Mary blanched, sending pieces of parchment fluttering to the floor. "What makes you think . . ."
His gaze met hers. There was no accusation there, only curiosity.
She schooled her expression into one of neutrality. "This conversation is over." Mary pushed away from the counter, dumping the bowl's contents into the box and heading to the back room with it in hand.
"You haven't even heard my offer," he protested. He reached out as if to stop her, but stumbled on the beads, flailing to keep himself upright.
"I don't need to. Get out." She swung around in the doorway to face him.
He regained his balance. "I'll pay upfront."
"Leave." She clutched the box harder to disguise her shaking.
He stood with one foot forward, about to follow her.
He thought against it, and raised his hands in surrender. "I apologize. I'll leave, but please," he pleaded, "first let me tell you how I know there's a Shifter. It's not a rumor. I can prove it."
Despite herself, she was intrigued. Not much, granted, but enough to wonder why this man was so convinced a dead race still existed, let alone that one of them has been found. She bit her lip, contemplating the best method to get him out of her store.
He was the only one here. And his stubbornness contended with hers.
Not to mention she needed to know how he knew about her, and managed to find her all the way in Julla.
"Fine." She jerked her head towards the backroom. "Let's talk in here."
She pushed aside a pile of wood shavings on the table to make room for the box and dragged two chairs to the center of the room. Shelves covered the walls, cluttered with various materials. Some were requested, but most were charms, tools, utensils, and the like.
"Have a seat." She sunk into her own chair and crossed her arms.
"Thank you." He accepted the invitation.
She didn't like the obvious relief he wore. He was desperate, and she didn't yet have a good read on how far this man was willing to go to convince her.
He wasn't the first person to ask her about Bluebloods. Over a decade had passed since the Blue Bloodbath, and still there was no shortage of people on the western side of the Forest of Impressions that wanted nothing more than to get their hands on a Shifter. Who wouldn't, when their blood can heal any poison, ailment, and even postpone death itself?
Any remaining Shifters, if they survived at all, would be wise to never show their face. But they were gone, and she refused to believe anyone who claimed they've seen a "Blueblood."
Because she looked.
Mary sighed. "How do you know there's a Shifter?" she humored him.
"A friend of mine traveled through Hulf recently." He reached into his satchel and brought out a couple pages of parchment. Large, but neat handwriting graced the paper. It was well-read, judging from how wrinkled it was. "Two boys claimed they ran into a Blueblood, so she decided to investigate."
"Are those from her? Can I read them?" Mary asked, pointing to the parchment.
A smile tugged at his lips, but she ignored it. "Of course."
She scanned the letter, expecting an introduction of some kind but his friend didn't mince words. They jumped right to the point.
Last time I wasn't able to find where the bird fell, so I convinced one of the boys to take me there. Don't worry, he was in no danger. I scouted the entire area, and there's nothing. Not even a squirrel. The residents of Hulf call it haunted, but after the first few days you get used to the quiet.
He even pointed out the tree where the bird was before it fell. I noticed a patch of grass underneath grew thicker than the area around it, and on closer inspection there was a definite blue tinge. I have no doubt the boys weren't exaggerating their story. What kind of Blueblood it is remains to be seen, however.
I'll keep you updated if I see it, or if anyone else sees it around.
Also: I think it may have been bleeding beforehand. I don't think a rock did that much damage."
The grass grew thicker? That didn't necessarily mean it was a Shifter, but the description was accurate for a Blueblood. She scanned the page once more. Why was the letter so short?
The entire time she felt his gaze like an impatient itch, but she read in no hurry.
"Are there more?" she gestured to the letter.
"Not with me, but yes." He reached over to take the paper back. "This is the most recent one."
He waited expectantly, eyes searching for a response. She tugged at the end of her sleeve. Mary found being the center of anyone's attention to be unsettling, but she gave in to curiosity.
"What exactly happened? These boys—where did they see the bird?"
"She explained in a previous letter. Apparently they were playing near the forest and dared each other to go past the edge of the trees. Not far in they found a bird resting on a branch and threw a rock at it."
She must have looked disapproving because he shrugged and added: "Boys will be boys."
Perhaps poorly-behaved boys.
"When they ran up to where it fell, it was bleeding. Blue." He paused, searching for a reaction.
Was that supposed to be a revelation?
"And how did your friend find out?" She sat on her hands to keep them from fidgeting.
"The boys told the whole village. Most didn't believe them, but Rashida—my friend—convinced one of them to take her where it happened."
"How many times has she gone into the forest?" Mary questioned in disbelief. "And she brought a child with her no less."
"It's not as dangerous as you may think. She's been there before."
"You mean your friend has been lucky before." She leaned forward. "Even if she did see a Blueblood, it would be insane to try to find it again."
"You speak from experience?" He cocked his head.
She grit her teeth. "Whatever she saw, it's no proof of a Shifter. Besides, it'd be long gone now."
"If it wasn't a Shifter, then don't you think it would have killed them?" he asked. "They ran, but it didn't pursue. And when they returned it was gone."
"Beasts are violent, but there are many reasons it may have not retaliated. That is not proof."
But there was no reason why the Beast wouldn't have killed the boys. Or at least gave them a scare. Her mind was churning. She tried to stamp out the spark of interest, but it persisted.
"As I said, if you and Rike were to help, I can pay upfront. That way, if it turns out to not be a Shifter, you still get paid. But, if we find one, you both get double."
"I'll have to pass on that." She stood, her chair scuffing the floor.
He copied her movement, placing himself inconveniently between her and the storefront. "100 crests. Each."
Her eyes widened. No way he could afford that amount.
"Move." She squared her shoulders, daring him to disobey.
"Why don't you think it over and I'll come back tomorrow? How does that sound?"
"How about you don't." She pushed past him. "I'm very busy right now, so if you would . . ."
He raised an eyebrow. No one else was in the shop but them.
Mary scowled. "Show yourself out." She flipped through her list of orders, refusing to further interact with the man.
"If you change your mind, I'm staying at the Hillside Inn. Feel free to ask for me." The door closed with a soft click.
Mary let out a sigh. She read through the names, but soon gave up when none of the words registered. Her mind was elsewhere.
How long until close? She flipped the list over in case someone walked in and leaned out the window, squinting at the sun. She needed to invest in a water clock.
It was barely noon. Bridget had the day off, so she had to be here until evening. Few people visited her shop this time of year, and that made her restless. She used the time to clean; the labor unsuccessful in keeping her thoughts away from Bluebloods.
Why didn't the bird kill them?
Because it was just a bird, her common sense chided.
There were no more Shifters. That much she knew, but, try as she might to stomp out her own hopes, a small light of it had taken hold.
She'd ignore it this time.
She cleaned the entire ground floor and, finding nothing else to do, closed early. Out of habit Mary knocked a coating of slush off her sign that announced: 'Lucky Hunt Trinkets'. It was tacky, and old. She promised herself she'd replace it when she bought the place, but that was last year.
A thin trail ran behind her shop and through a copse of trees. The crisp air nipped at her face and hands, reprimanding her for not wearing a cloak. Instead of following the path, she stepped around patches of snow, her boots leaving imprints in the dewy grass where the ice had surrendered its hold. A magpie warbled from a bush blooming with tiny flowers. It flew to another branch, disliking her proximity.
She picked up a feather it left and began to fidget.
The faint scent of smoke hit her nostrils not a minute before his cabin came into view. A faint smile tugged at her lips.
"Anyone home?" she shouted.
"Nope," a voice yelled from inside.
"Oh, alright then. I'll come visit another time." Mary spun on her heels, pretending to leave.
The clunk of footsteps against wood changed to a softer thud. "Mary," her friend laughed.
She looked over her shoulder. "So you are home. Why didn't you say so?"
Rike's signature grin spread across his face, and Mary bit her lip in an effort to remain serious. He squished her in a hug. "You're choking me." She coughed unconvincingly.
"No I'm not."
"Really. Your compass is digging into my ribs."
"Oh, sorry." He let go and placed the compass from his pocket into his satchel instead. She convinced him on a few occasions to leave it at her shop so he wouldn't lose it, but otherwise it was attached to him like glue.
Mary hesitated to speak, unsure how to phrase what occurred. It dawned on her that this was exactly the type of job Rike loved, and she didn't want him to jump on the offer when he didn't understand what he was getting into. Not to mention she had reservations about Harrison, and—
She forgot to ask him how he knew about Carafrín.
She mentally cursed, rubbing her temple. Maybe she will have to talk to him later.
"Is something wrong?"
"No." She shook her head. "Do you want to go eat at Linnet's?"
"Way ahead of you." Rike darted around her, not waiting a second longer to heed her suggestion. He walked backwards to face her as she caught up. At this rate, he was going to trip.
"Aren't you cold?" he asked.
"No." She hoped the waning light was too dark for Rike to see her shiver.
"I don't see you wearing your cloak."
"I spend so much time around you, I'm immune to the cold."
Mary's hand twitched. Oh, how she wanted to throw a handful of wet snow in his face. But she was better than that. Besides, he was heading right for a low-hanging branch.
"AaaaaAYY!" His head smacked into the branch, a cascade of snow falling on his face and dripping into his shirt.
"I thought you said cold didn't bother you," she snorted. She darted around him to the bakery door, half-expecting a snowball to fly her way.
The scent of spices, yeast, and cooked meat wafted around her. The ovens made the entire bakery warm and welcoming, in contrast to the evening chill outside.
"Hey Linette." Mary smiled at her friend.
"What was that noise outside?" She rinsed her hands of flour and covered the last tray of dough to set overnight.
"Noise?" she asked. "I didn't hear anything."
A draft of cool air blew in from behind her. "Mary." A sense of betrayal radiated from him.
He stomped in, his pout displayed for all to see.
"Are you being mean to Rike again?" Linette put a hand over her mouth to hide her amusement.
"I'd never." Mary brushed the remaining snow from his shoulder. "Do you have extra tapas today?"
In response, she brought out a platter of flatbread with strips of chicken on top. A drizzle of brown sauce coated them. "Take as many as you want."
"You sure?" Mary took one, then after tasting it grabbed another. She should come tomorrow with something as a thanks. Maybe a toy for her son?
Mary was so wrapped up thinking if he'd like a little horse or not, she didn't notice someone else walked into the bakery.
"Hey Rike—" Her question faded from her tongue when she noticed his attention was fixed to the person who had walked in. She bumped his foot with her toe. He briefly tore his eyes away, but they returned to the equally surprised man returning his stare.
"It's been awhile." Skin light and hair dark; his height was not much taller than hers or Rike's, but his stature was solidly built.
Her eyes darted to his belt where a familiar knife hung with engravings of flowers and birds on the handle.
"Yeah." Rike cleared his throat. "Yeah it has."
The silence was palatable.
"We better get going." She wrapped an arm around Rike. Something was off. "We'll see you tomorrow, Linette." Mary dragged him out the door, but the man's stare followed them.
"Do you know each other?" Mary whispered.
"He's just an old friend." His smile didn't reach his eyes.
"One of the same 'old friends' you left Carafrín for?"
"Rike." Mary waved her hand in front of his face to get him to look at her. "This is serious. Do you need to stay the night?"
"I—no. No, it's fine." He rubbed the back of his neck.
"Alright." She drew the word out longer than necessary.
He turned to leave, then stopped.
"Almost forgot." He held out his compass. "Here. Do you mind keeping it until the next job?"
"Of course. I'll keep it safe."
She watched him until he disappeared into the trees, and then a moment longer. Her breath came out in cloudy wisps, the sun too low to see much more than the faint line of the horizon. She closed her fist around the compass, still warm from Rike's hand, and headed inside for the night.