Making the trip back to Soft Haven was a far more peaceful affair without the company, only the sounds of fauna and the distant music growing in volume the further away from the Bounty House one traveled. It wasn’t long before the forest gave way to a new road and a sharp left offered a view of the battlements surrounding the once bustling town. Faded banners hung off the walls where a few bored looking soldiers kept conversation with one another,only the occasional glance offered to the few carts trodding their way through the northern gate. The three soldiers on the ground were far more alert, and clearly greener than those above, as they scanned every cart, said hello to every regular traveler they met, but still found little and less to actually stop anyone from passing through.
Once a bustling center of commerce with an expansive open air market and numerous shops facing the market square with exotic delicacies unusual for a landlocked city, the toll a change in the primary trade route took was worn into every nook and cranny. Empty buildings with dirty, gritty windows counted more than the occupied ones, though even many of those barely boasted more than a few common wares in the windows. The market square, loud and bustling still, hid large empty patches of broken and cracked cobblestone and poor souls begging for a copper or two for their daily bread could be found anywhere someone looked. Soft Haven’s fall from grace was evident in dinged signs, peeling paint, threadbare clothes, and tired, weary eyes hidden behind bright smiles or grit teeth. Only those with strong connections to the red fern farms escape the fall and everyone else only clung to fading hope they too would be blessed.
Ceolfric kept one hand on the pommel of his sword throughout the walk to town and only removed it once he’d safely crossed the threshold of the gates. That incessant buzzing had returned, little motes of aether that encircled him ever more oppressively the deeper he ventured into the city. While not quite worrisome - he stood as a lion amongst lambs here, after all - the pervasive feeling that someone was behind him at all times posed to be more of a distraction than Ceolfric would like. The bandit powered through the streets with intent, pausing only to peer over his shoulder every so often and confirm that the sea of presences he felt were simply townsfolk going about their day and not anyone deliberately tailing him.
With an aggravated grunt that earned him a wary stare from a passerby, Ceolfric turned back to the situation at hand. At least finding a provisioner would be simpler than he thought in this hollow shell of a town. All the peddlers of pointless frivolities would’ve surely gone out of business unless the local gentry kept them afloat by eccentricity alone. Honestly, the establishment of the Bounty House was a brilliant move; not because it would revitalize the economy, but to draw in enough aetherborn to prevent the nearest enterprising warband from stealing the realm’s entire red fern supply out from under a few starving peasants’ noses.
Several small children stared at Ceolfric's sword as he passed, pausing in the game of tag they played through the market patrons' legs as the haggle and bartered for the variety of everyday foods and goods. The Soft Haven Mercantile just off to the side of the western gate, its trough and railing worn from years of travels tying their horses for a small fee on the way into town. A few older folk sat on its covered porch and chatted while they watched people meander to and fro and a couple of city guards marched out with a small lockbox.
Across from it, The Hawthorne Apothecary stood in all its crooked glory. It's first floor boasted creeping vines and flowering plants behind tall windows were lights seemed to speckle in the windows. Above it, there was only a single window with it's curtains shut tight but a box full of small sprouting herbs set beneath it. Finally, the slapdash third story seemed likely to topple onto the empty shop next door with little more than a stiff breeze despite the brick chimney poking through its roof.
Ceolfric eyed the apothecary door from across the road with something akin to disdain in his gaze. That was not the hall of a storied warrior, no matter how decrepit she may have grown. He briefly considered that he had the place confused - it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see multiple apothecaries here with how readily they had access to ingredients - but the name on the door certainly matched the woman he’d been told to look for. Lilann truly had spun him a string of nonsense.
But that was a concern for later, a frivolity he could entertain at his leisure. Turning away, he made for the other store and swallowed the tiniest bit of his pride to shift out of the way of the incoming guards as they made their exit. Their cargo caught his notice, another idle curiosity to mull over as he went about his actual business. What could a common provisioner have to offer the local guardsmen that needed to be stored in a locked container? Unless they had an extortion ring going, in which case he had to give props to their brazenness.
The bandit offered little more than a glance to the porch-dwellers as he made his way inside. Catching eyes was tolerable, turning heads was not. Unnecessary interaction with townsfolk before he’d established himself was a needless risk.
The inside of the Mercantile was not unsurprising, long and rickety shelves stuffed with all manner of supplies. A few buckets had toppled over recently and found themselves at a stop halfway across the uneven floor, tea sat in a neat pile on top of a glass case displaying smoking pipes carved out of bone, wood, and any number of common materials. The sound of pattering feet approached the front as a little boy whipped around the corner, screeching in delight as an older, portly woman huffed as she chased him. A wimple covered all but her face, where heavy laugh lines and deep crows feet highlighted her features. She wore a simple red linen gown under a brown, sleeveless tunic. She snatched up the child as they rounded the corner. "Phillip, you're going to find yourself in trouble if you keep skittering about like a rabbit."
She chastised the giggling boy, no older than 2. She turned her attention to the new-comer, cocked her head curiously. "Well, well, well. Haven't seen your face around here before. I'm Juliethe Coggins, owner of the Mercantile. What can we do you for, stranger? Need something to repair your saddle, feed for your horse, a bit of rope for your trip across the continent?"“Not quite,”
Ceolfric offered curtly. He didn’t begrudge her the question; if he were wealthy enough to own a horse, he’d be scrambling to disembark the sinking ship that was Soft Haven too. “I need food for the road. Supposed to be a ten day trip.”
The bandit let his eyes wander at last, avoiding the child on principle. Last thing he needed was to spook this lady’s son and upset her, she’d probably raise prices just for the inconvenience. The entire concept of trading felt foreign to him; even on the rare occasions Ceolfric didn’t simply take what he desired and cut down anyone that tried to stop him, he certainly never attended to the bartering personally. He had lackeys for that."Easy enough, traveller. Salted beef and some hardback ought to keep your belly full."
She nodded at the request, bustling her way around the counter to put the child down, where small wooden blocks with animals carved into them grabbed his attention momentarily, before pulling down two large wooden containers off a shelf and hauling them to the counter. She placed them next to the scale and teas and popped them both open, revealing the dried meat and hard, dense biscuits already cut into reasonably sized pieces. "On your way to Wilree? The Wastes take a bit more than that to get to and can't think of nothing interesting close enough than that."
Juliethe chatted as she weighed out the meat and biscuit, wrapping them in meal sized parcels and leaving them to the side. "These'll run you a copper a day, a little more if you're interested in some dried plum along with them."
Ceolfric’s eyes narrowed warily for a brief moment. Didn’t this woman know curiosity killed the cat? He had no idea how secretive this delivery was supposed to be, but he certainly didn’t need some blabbermouth tipping off every would-be highwayman in Soft Haven that high value cargo would be departing soon. No, no; the question was innocent, she might even have a traveller’s rumor or two to share. It couldn’t hurt to glean more information from the locals, even if he didn’t trust a soul in this town yet.
Besides, she’d learn the price of treachery very quickly when he filleted her baby like a trout.“Mhmm,”
He finally hummed in affirmation, “Don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about the beast attacks on the road?”
Ceolfric humored the woman while he fished the requested copper out. It was quite the affair to retrieve, with his coinpurse being tucked away inside his jacket rather than dangling from his belt for any starveling cutpurse to salivate over. Once he’d finally wrangled his gambeson open and counted out the coin, he stuffed it pointedly back inside."Oh Gods, yes! Poor Rolen, got caught in a rainstorm barely a week past on his way into town from his uncle's farm. Came stumbling in through my doors like a walking corpse, babbling away in tongues."
She made a brief gesture, a prayer to Lady Azaiza. "City guard came storming in behind him, wrapped him up lickity split, and vanished before I could call for Agitha."
She gathered up the coin and in its place, stacks the portioned rations, leaning forward and lowering her voice."Official story was he died of a festering wound but I know my eyes saw the rot in that shoulder. Bet they had to put him down before he spread it."
She finished stacking and put her finger to her lips. "But old Juliethe didn't say nothing, you hear?
Ceolfric paused his fiddling with his garments as the woman spoke, perplexion overcoming his face. That did not sound like a mere animal, and it certainly wouldn’t have necessitated a cover-up if it were. The question remained, to what end? What did the city have to gain from allowing horrors to prowl their woods unknown and uncontested? If they were fearful of diverting caravan traffic even further, they should simply handle the issue, not foster more rumors with suspicious disappearances.
The men of the south made less and less sense to him with each moment. “Of course. I heard nothing,”
He mumbled as he slung his pack off his back and began loading the provisions from the counter inside. Seems he’d have reason to speak with Agitha after all, if only to learn what she knew of the situation. “And thank you.” "Be careful out there, traveler. Don't go looking for trouble now you know!
Juliethe cautioned but offered him a smile as her child started pulling at her dress. "Don't be shy, come around whenever you need something. Say bye to the man, Phillip."
Now in her arms, Phillip waved at Ceolfric before demanding to be put down again.
Ceolfric wasn’t looking
for it, but the brigand had the strangest feeling it’d find him nevertheless. He raised a hand unenthusiastically in response to the child’s farewell, if only because the woman had provided him with more than he’d expected and it wouldn’t do to disrespect her kin after that. After hiking his pack back up onto his shoulders, he made for the door just as determinedly as he entered. With the essentials secured, Ceolfric would have ample time for investigation, though it was a bit irritating that he had no leads on anyone that definitively knew anything. He certainly couldn’t go around enthralling guardsmen until he found one authorized to know what the hell they were covering up.
Which meant he’d have to talk to the woman across the street. One didn’t inhabit a town with a power like theirs and not become privy to every dirty little secret of the populace. Unfortunately, one also learned to keep their mouth shut about said secrets, lest she be run out of town by a mob of scorned citizens.
The bandit made his way to the apothecary with a forceful stride, probably appearing to the passing onlooker that he intended to kick down Agitha’s door with sword in hand rather than ask her a few polite questions.
The apothecary was much the same inside as it was out, warm toned wooden shelves host to a myriad of plants, bottles of dried herbs, and polyjuices and ointments. A single set of wooden stairs broke the long cabinets on the right wall, leading up to a second story hidden behind a locked door and to the right of the counter at the back, a strange platform with various ropes and sandbags suspended around it was carved into a small alcove in the wall. However, the spots of light visible from the outside were not candles or mirrors but rather crystals hovering through the store, swaying in a phantom breeze. Magical items were a rarity even with so much dedicated study on aether and its secrets; even one of these would cost a fortune, much less the ten that hovered in the shop.
The store had a few customers browsing, one woman pulling a small vial with indecipherable script scrawled in tiny, messy script close to her eyes as she squinted at it. Beyond them, an older halfling woman sat at the counter, white hair cut short and tipped ears hinting to some elven lingerie in her blood. A steaming cup of tea sat at her elbow while she rested her head in her palm, flipping pages of a small book at the counter. As the tiny bell above the door announced the arrival of a new customer, the woman merely glanced up, gave Ceolfric a quick up and down, and then let out a heavy sigh and tucked her book away, opting instead to pick up her tea with both hands.
Well, she certainly sized him up quickly.
Ceolfric approached the counter without even a hint of subtlety, his brow arched and expression carefully neutral. Though it pained him, he had to regard her with all the respect and wariness that he would a person of actual rank, at least until he determined whether she’d be an asset to him or not. “Agitha Hawthorne, I presume?”
He questioned, more out of politeness than curiosity. “The Bounty House bade me seek you out. I’d like to speak at your earliest convenience.”
Leaving the ‘or I’ll drag you out into the street by your hair until you do’
unvoiced was probably in his best interest, especially when her shop’s floating light show might very well be weaponized at her whim.“You look like a feral goblin and yet you speak like an educated brat.”
Agitha snorted in amusement. “Fascinating trick that Mystralath pulled. Why would a noble send a groomed mutt after me?”
One of Ceolfric’s nostrils flared at the comment, though he quickly restrained himself. The only one that looked like a goblin here was this hag before him. She was either very sure of herself or too deluded by the comforts of civility to believe he could harm her. And unfortunately, he had to assume the former.“I’m not on any errands for the lord, I’m an animas aetherborn and I’m told you’re the expert on that subject around here.”
He threw a furtive glance around the room toward the other customers before continuing, “And I’d like to discuss a few rumors that may be pertinent to my next job, if you’d care to indulge me.” “Very well, mutt. I’ll deign to indulge your curiosity for a moment.”
Agitha raised her voice, smacking her hand on the counter. “You lousy lot of loiterers, get out of my shop! You can hide from your wives, children, or whatever other problems you bred into your own lives later.”
Despite the harshness of her words, the few people inside dutifully put their things back and shuffled out of the shop without any protest, the tinkling of the bell announcing the last departure. “Now before you start yapping and howling, let’s set a ground rule. You don’t try and fuck with me or my ward, I won’t destroy your fragile sense of identity and put in whatever the fuck I feel like in your head. As long as we respect that, we’ll get along swimmingly.”
Agitha took a sip and propped her chin up on her hands with a cocky, sly smile. “Now what rumors could a new mutt in town be possibly interested in already?”
Ceolfric’s gaze once again trailed back to follow the group of patrons as they exited. Turning his attention back to Agitha, he rolled his eyes. If she preferred to dispense with the pleasantries, he certainly wasn’t going to protest.“Had I any interest in burning this soon-to-be shantytown to the ground, I’d already be lighting torches. I’m not in the business of hindering my own prosperity, and given that I’m employed hardly an afternoon stroll from the gates, I think we can both agree that I don’t need to be collecting enemies in Soft Haven.”
He drummed his fingers on the counter in irritation before composing himself with a huff. “That aside, my next contract entails passage through an area known as of late for strange beast attacks. Juliethe across the way spun me a tale of some unfortunate traveler who showed up with a strange injury and the guard whisked him away. I figured you might be more knowledgeable in the more arcane circumstances of the incident.”
Agitha regarded Ceolfric with equal parts surprise and disbelief before dissolving into hysterical laughter, an inelegant sound that faintly resembled the bray of a donkey and a raging fire. "You expect me to tell you…"
She managed to wheeze between bouts of laughter. It took her a moment to compose herself, blotting away the tears with a handkerchief she whipped out from under the counter. "Even if I knew something, Mutt, why in Melenar's name would I tell youI, some random ass traveler who just blew into town?"“Couldn’t hurt to ask,”
Ceolfric offered in lieu of the threats he would’ve preferred to make, “If you don’t intend to tell me, I can’t very well force you to without making a liar of myself, now can I? It’ll die if it crosses my path regardless.”
He wasn’t sure if she was being cagey to fuck with him or because he’d stumbled onto something serious, but he certainly wouldn’t reduce himself to begging for an answer. "Ha! I can appreciate a cock sure attitude. Juliethe is right. Bastard got the rot in his shoulder and by the next morning, his corpse was making passes at one of the guards' faces. Wasn't a pretty sight."
Agitha grimaced at the memory. "One of the higher ups is due for a promotion. A commotion like this could set him back a few years, at best. Better to hide it until the jackass is behind a desk. Cowards, all of them." "As for the arcane technicalities, I ain't got shit. Not my specialization. The aether is all fucked up but it could be demons, a fluke, some dumbest aetherborn meddling with shit they don't understand. Whatever it is, the bastard's big with lots of teeth and those teeth pass the Rot through 'em.
The aggression left Ceolfric’s stance as he received his answer and he casually shifted his weight to one leg in consideration. There was the context he was lacking, but it left him in much the same position as he’d been before. He couldn’t let the thing bite him - not that he’d have been open to the idea before anyway - and he now knew that it certainly wasn’t a mere animal.“That’ll suffice, the nuances would’ve probably gone over my head anyway. Thank you.”
It was hard to leave any venom out of his words, but the woman had, to her credit, given him what he wanted. He found it hard to believe Aleka considered he might want to spend any extraordinary amount of time with Agitha, let alone learn
from her. “I take it the Aleka doesn’t make it a habit to send wayward aetherborn your way, given my warm reception.” "It'd be easier to say if I knew an Aleka but that's a safe bet."
Agitha agreed easily, sipping again a her tea. "Pft, I was downright pleasant, brat. I'd have turned your whiney ass right out of my shop if I didn't think you were worth my time. Still debating it, honestly. Been a while since any aetherborn had the balls to cross my threshold so I thought I'd give you a chance." "But your Aleka knew what he was talking about. In Othard and across the Suelene Isles, I am the best."
Agitha looked him up and down again. "Can't say I've met many of our kind running odd jobs. The siren call of our power is hard to resist. What's the angle, mutt?"“He’s the,”
Ceolfric made a vague gesticulation, as if trying to recall some pointless tidbit of information, “Verazian secretary down at the Bounty House. He was rattling off potential mentors to someone else and pointed me in your direction.”
As tempting as it was to take her suggestion and walk out the door with the information he came for, he certainly wasn’t going to look like he’d been cowed by a tiny old woman.
He wasn’t too keen on explaining his ‘angle’ to her or anyone else, for that matter, but hiding his motives would only invite suspicion and he wasn’t entirely certain if this woman could detect whether or not he was lying yet.“My angle is that men of violence often perish prematurely when they bite off more than they can chew. I used to rob carts and pillage hamlets for a living, that doesn’t exactly open avenues for whispering in the ears of the powerful. I’ll not content myself with a band of ruffians wrapped around my little finger when I could be a king.”
Brown-nosing with the Mystraleths certainly sounded more productive than hoping a warlord of substance popped up in Dranir and weaseling his way into his inner circle, in any case. “Could I not ask you the same question? Shopkeeping seems a bit beneath ‘the best’.”
Agitha cackled at the question. "I've had my fill of the world, mutt. I've traveled the breadth of Othard, sailed all the Suelene Isles, stared death and hell in the face and came out victorious. I earned my rest and I'll rest my bones wherever the hell I damn please. At the end of the day, I love alchemy and opening up shop in the biggest red fern supplier in Finnagund gives me access to all the material I could ever want."
Agitha shrugged, a bitter twist to her mouth. "A century is a long time to wander, mutt. Play your games, have your fun, but find where you want to die early and set up shop when your bones give out."
Agitha lapsed into a contemplative silence as she stared as Ceolfric."Bah, look what you've done. Turned me into some melodramatic old crone."
Agitha snapped as she shook herself out of it, fixing Ceolfric with a serious look. "Careful of your Verazian. That Gods forsaken country only let out those willing to lick their superiors' boots and what's been filtering through the vines ain't nothing worth tangling with."
Ceolfric would die in an opulent palace surrounded by the mounted heads of his enemies, were it up to him. One wanders when they have a destination to seek; he wasn’t some common thrill seeker. But her half-senile words of wisdom were less important than her insight into the Verazians. Sure, Ceolfric considered the man strange at best, but never considered he’d be anything more than harmless. Was he a spy? Did he hide some ulterior motive behind that monotone veneer? Ceolfric had been so busy trying to get a read on Cerric, he hadn’t considered the danger posed to him in other directions.
The brigand’s jaw worked contemplatively as he met Agitha’s gaze, then he gave her a curt nod. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Ousting a foreign conspiracy would certainly curry favor with the crown, but even if Aleka had no grand ambitions, Ceolfric could at least watch his own ass. “This wasn’t the waste of time I figured it would be, you have my gratitude.”"So glad we could see eye to eye, mutt."
Agitha drawled sarcastically with a dismissive gesture. "Though if your coin purse feels a little empty, I wouldn't mind paying for one of the bastard's teeth, if you have what it takes to slay it."“You’ll be the first to know,”
Ceolfric muttered dismissively as he turned for the door. Maybe he could extort some hush money out of the guard in lieu of a bounty too, if the monster was meant to be kept under wraps. If not, there was always the option to parade the beast’s head through the streets and make sure every traveller in the city knew the Bandit Prince of Dranir saved their sorry asses. It would certainly make him look like a favorable hire.