Sneax and Elaina went to collect on a debt for Draks, but found more than they bargained for. Luckily for them, they met Nathaniel, a half-fire elf mercenary, and his companion Maleeka, a giantess of unknown origin. But it turns out that Nathaniel works for Draks as well, and that he's here to take Sneax to Ellesburg, a tiny timber town lost in the hinterlands of the Kingdom's northern frontier. Sneax soon finds herself on a ship with her new companions, her friend Elaina far behind.
But, of course, that's only the beginnings of Sneax's problems...
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 3: The Priest of Loki
Sneax wasn’t sure what she was expecting from the town of Ellesberg, but whatever it was, the town itself was a disappointment. The entire place consisted of some dozen buildings, most thoroughly ramshackle affairs cobbled together from rough cut logs and mud-based mortar. Two were larger than the rest and built using cut timber and actual nails. One of these stood near the river and had a paddle-wheel attached. Probably the local mill, Sneax figured. The other was the large building she’d seen from the ship, the one with the giant chimney. That one stood some two stories tall and was by far the town’s nicest, most solidly constructed structure. The bottom had been built from quarried stone and mortared with proper cement; the top had been pieced together using the same rough timber that marked the rest of the town’s construction but with far more care. The roof was higher and steeper, and it had been shingled with small, individually cut wooden slats. Compared to the rest of Ellesberg, this one building looked both stout and fancy. At the very least, Sneax figured, its roof wasn’t likely to leak.
Having nowhere else to go, she headed there.
She looked around as she walked, but the sights didn’t improve her opinion of the town. Most of the buildings were low-standing, single-story affairs in various states of disrepair. They crouched in parallel rows beside a single dusty street that lay empty save for the ruts of old wagon tracks. Sneax walked past the general store and saw an old man with a grisly yellow beard sitting on the front porch giving her a singularly unfriendly stare. She did her best to return the look with interest and let her hand slide down to the hilt of her short sword.
“Easy,” Nathaniel said behind her. “These folk don’t see a lot of strangers, but there’s no need to start trouble.”
Sneax turned to Nathaniel and gave him the same stare. “I don’t like the way he’s lookin’ at me.”
“I’m sure he could say the same.” Nathaniel rubbed his hands up and down his on his arms as though trying to warm them, but there was no way the gesture did any good through the metal scales of his armor. “It sure is cold up here.”
“Yeah,” Sneax agreed. She pulled her cloak a little tighter. “I can’t wait to see the reception we’re gonna get once we finally reach the inn.”
Though the town itself wasn’t much, Sneax had to admit that the area—not Ellesberg, but the actual land surrounding it—was striking. Evergreens reached to the sky in every direction while jagged white rocks rose as knolls across the face of foothills just to the north of the town’s outer limits. Those foothills, tree lined and green, seemed to roll off into the distance forever. The air was chill and the area rough, but there was a wonder about the place that Sneax knew she would have missed had there been more to look at within the town itself.
At last the little party reached the building with the shingled roof. A timber sign hung over a door made from varnished pine—Mapleman’s Tavern.
“Figures the biggest building in town would be the local watering hole,” Nathaniel said. “If I had to spend my days here, I’d stay in my cups, too.”
Behind Sneax, Maleeka grunted.
Nathaniel reached for the door. “Like I said, the sooner we find our man, the sooner we can conduct our business and get out of here. The timber factor’s name is William Braven. If he’s not inside, I’m sure someone will know how to find him.”
“You make it sound easy,” Sneax said.
“How hard could it be?”
The tavern’s front door opened onto a low, dark common room with more than a dozen tables arranged in rows around a smoky, open-sided hearth. The hearth had been laid into the room’s foundation to provide warmth to as many patrons as possible, and the air in the room was dense with its smoke and with the acrid smell of body odor. The room was crowded. Various handfuls of enormous, rough-looking men sat around each of the tables, all wearing heavy flannel shirts or work-stained homespun coveralls. They were all men of a certain type—tough, bearded lumberjacks relaxing with a bit of warmth and a few pints of ale between bouts of intense manual labor. They reminded Sneax of the dockside street-toughs she’d known back in Wanderhaven, save that the lumberjacks were a few years older for the most part, and they looked a bit more weather-worn, too. They had that same sense of shared community, though, and of macho belonging that Sneax remembered from the street gangs on Wanderhaven’s docks. Stepping into Mapleman’s Tavern felt very like stepping onto a rival gang’s turf. Still, Sneax had never known a street-tough to be capable of manual labor. These men, she was sure, all had calluses on their hands.
After the chill emptiness of the deserted streets outside, the close heat of the tavern’s common room made the place feel crowded and uncomfortable. Sneax and her companions entered into a room filled with the heavy buzz of conversation, but before the door closed behind them, silence had fallen. Every eye turned to look at them. Sneax was a dockside enforcer who worked for a fire elf, but she still felt tiny beside the burly timber men. She shrank back from the hostile glares on instinct and began reflexively looking for a place to hide. She caught herself and forced her eyes to return the glares with as much menace as she could manage, but it was just a show. She doubted she was fooling anyone.
This is not my thing, she thought. What in the name of Apollo am I doing here?
“See?” she said aloud, “I told you this wasn’t gonna be easy.”
“Steady,” Nathaniel said softly. “We didn’t come here to fight.” He turned and cleared his throat and then addressed the room at large in a much louder voice. “Gentlemen, we are looking for Mister William Braven. Do any of you know where he might be found?”
In the back, a large man, older and heavily bearded, stood. The dome of his bald head shone in the firelight. “What business you got with Mr. Braven, freak?”
Around him men nodded, egging him on.
Sneax heard a heavy thump behind her and whipped about. Her sword was halfway out of its scabbard before she realized that it was just Maleeka. The giantess had dropped their bags and was reaching for the heavy maul she wore slung across her back.
“It’s alright, my dear,” Nathaniel said. He put a hand on Maleeka’s shoulder. “Let’s try not to slaughter the nice lumberjacks unless it’s absolutely necessary.” He turned back to the speaker. “We’re not looking for trouble, good sir. My associates and I are here on behalf of Draks Darkmore. We were sent to negotiate—”
“We don’t want none of your kind around here, you freak,” the man yelled. “Why don’t you just turn around and take that crew you got right back to wherever you came from? This here place here’s for workin’ men!”
“Yeah!” cried several of the men nearby.
Nathaniel bristled. “Now see here, fellow. I mean you no harm, but I’ll not tolerate disrespect. You tell me where William Braven is, and we’ll be on our way. Otherwise, I may be forced to thump some sense into that bald pate of yours!”
“Wonderful…” Sneax muttered.
“Why you little—” the bald man began. He took a step towards Nathaniel, and behind Sneax, Maleeka growled.
“Wait!” a voice cried from somewhere in the back of the room.
A set of swinging doors opened at the far side of the common room, and from another part of the inn a pudgy little man emerged. He had slickly parted hair and a blue suede jacket adorned with gold buttons over a starched white shirt. Compared to the lumberjacks, he was a peacock. Physically, he was the smallest, least imposing man in the room, but the larger ones gave way as naturally as if he were a giant. They relaxed visibly now that he’d emerged to take charge of the situation.
The newcomer paused when he reached the bald-headed oaf who’d started the trouble. “It’s alright, Klay. I’ve been expecting these folks.”
Klay stared back at the little man as though he wanted to argue, but the man held his ground. Klay grumbled but sat back down, and after a moment, conversation began to pick up again around the room. The lumberjacks still stared, but whoever this newcomer was, he obviously owned the room.
Sneax let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Come, my friends,” the man said. “Let’s find a table in the back and see what we can do for one another.”
The peacock seemed friendly enough, but something in his manner made Sneax think that things were about to get more complicated rather than less.
Nathaniel followed the man in the suede vest down a short wood-lined hallway to a little room at the back of the inn. A small wooden table with four chairs stood at the room’s center, along with a window through which Nathaniel could see the foothills north of town. He pulled his cloak from his shoulders, draped it over one of the chairs, and sat. Sneax and Maleeka did the same, though Sneax had to jump to get up into her chair while Maleeka had to hunch down to keep her head from hitting the room’s low wooden ceiling.
“You’re William Braven?”
The man nodded and pulled another chair around. “My friends call me Billy.”
A serving girl poked her head into the room just as Billy was getting settled. She’d seen maybe thirty winters, Nathaniel guessed, but her face was lined and weatherworn. Like the lumberjacks out in the common room, she wore a heavy flannel shirt, but hers was tucked into a long linen skirt that rustled with petticoats. The girl’s hair was blonde, and she’d obviously once been pretty, but her clothes were now worn and ragged, and frontier life had aged her face prematurely. She smiled when she spoke, but that smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“You want something, Mr. Braven?”
“A pitcher of lager and a few cups, yes?” Billy said. “Our friends have had a thirsty journey getting here, I’m sure.”
“Thank you,” Nathaniel replied.
He tried to return the girl’s smile, but there was something about Billy Braven that he didn’t like and couldn’t quite overlook. In a room full of rough-hewn working men, Billy was the only one who looked like he had two copper farthings to rub together, and all the real men deferred to him in a way Nathaniel found unnerving. True, they were an oafish lot, but coming into such a remote backwater, Nathaniel had expected nothing else. Moreover, towns like this tended to have masters, and Billy Braven was obviously the master of this one. None of that was unexpected. However the sheer, overwhelming disparity between Billy and his men was so manifest that it was striking, even in a frontier backwater. Billy might be small, but he was very clearly used to having his own way about things. Nathaniel had seen the type man times, but he didn’t much care for it.
This will not be an easy negotiation, he realized. But I guess there’s not much I can do about that now.
The serving girl reappeared with the lager and a set of simple clay cups before anyone had said anything else. Nathaniel nodded to her and then started pouring for himself and for Billy while trying to figure out how best to approach negotiations. He decided to try to take it slow, and to see what developed. “My name is Nathaniel,” he said at last. He gestured to his companions. “These are my associates, Miss Sneakatara Boatman and Maleeka.”
“Charmed,” Billy replied. He smiled, and it was like oil floating atop a puddle of muddy water. “Welcome to our town.”
Nathaniel started to reply, but Sneax beat him to it. She bounced to her feet and stood on her chair, leaning over the table until she was almost nose-to-nose with Mr. Braven. “Cut the crap, Billy. You’re supposed to have some lumber for us, right?”
Sneax move caught Billy by surprise, and for a split-second, his smile faltered. “Yes, well… uh, as to that there’s been a—”
Sneax’s hand went straight for her short sword. She looked at Nathaniel. “What’d I tell you?”
Nathaniel grabbed Sneax’s arm before she could draw steel. So much for taking it slow. “Sneax, please. This is a negotiation. Let the man speak.”
“Sure,” she said. “I’m dyin’ to hear why this guy ain’t got what he owes.” She sat back down but looked at Billy with a critical eye. “So Billy, what’s the story? Why don’t you have what we came for?”
“It’s not that simple,” he began. “If you’ll just let me explain—”
A melodic, high-pitched voice cut him off. It was elven, but it didn’t belong to a fire elf. “It’s not his fault,” the voice said. “Well, it’s not entirely his fault, anyway.”
Nathaniel turned, and there stood one of the fiercest looking forest elves he’d ever seen. His heart sank even further. Whatever else this newcomer’s entrance meant, it would certainly complicate things.
Forest elves as a group tended to be lithe and muscular, and in this, the newcomer was no exception. She wore a heavy hide vest trimmed with animal furs over her otherwise bare arms and torso. Though she was hardly stout, the muscles in her upper arms rippled when she moved, and her entire body seemed possessed of an intensity of purpose that Nathaniel could only call inhuman. Twinned short swords rode at the elf’s hips, and she’d already done her face up in the long black lines of full elven war paint. These accentuated her long black hair, which was at once both lustrous and unkempt. She wore a great wooden longbow slung across her back, along with a quiver full of arrows. Her mouth was set in a hard line. Her eyes glittered darkly in the lamplight.
When she entered, Maleeka stood and started to reach for her maul, but the elf held her ground. She looked directly at Nathaniel. “What in the name of Gaia is a fire elf doing in Ellesberg? You better tell your guard dog to stand down, fire elf, or she’s like to lose a few fingers.”
Maleeka hefted her maul, but Nathaniel put a hand on her forearm before anything more could happen. “It’s okay, Maleeka.” He turned to the newcomer. “My purpose here is none of your concern, my lady. Now, if you’ll excuse us—”
Billy cut him off. “How’d you get in here, Zelda? How’d you even know we were meeting?”
“Shut up, Billy,” the elf—Zelda—said. She looked back at Nathaniel and then at Sneax, who was slowly sitting back down in her chair. She’d drawn a dagger but slid it back into her boot. “That’s some motley crew you got there, fire elf.”
“Do you have a point to make,” Nathaniel asked, “or did you come here just to insult my friends and disrupt our conversation?”
“Sure, if that’s the way you want to play it.” Zelda pulled up a chair, turned it backwards, and sat down at the table. “What old Billy here’s trying to tell you is that the main lumber camps have all been torched. That’s why that lot out there…” Zelda jerked a thumb back over her shoulder towards the lumberjacks seated back in the common room, “…are there instead of down-range doin’ actual work.
“See, we’ve had troubles with goblins lately,” she continued, “but old Billy, he ain’t been too keen on hiring camp guards. ‘Course, when the trouble started, it probably didn’t seem like all that much of a big deal, at least not to him anyway. It was just a few missing loggers here and there.” Zelda shrugged. “An inconvenience maybe, but nothing to stop ol’ Billy from making money on the timber trade. But the raids got worse, and this last one, well, I’m not sure what old Billy would’a done if you folks hadn’t showed up when you did.”
“I knew it,” Sneax said. She looked over at Nathaniel. “You see what I mean?”
Nathaniel didn’t answer. Instead, he turned to Billy. “I take it that you own the camps, Mr. Braven?”
Billy nodded. “Yes sir. Pretty much everybody who comes through town winds up working for me, one way or another.”
“Including us, apparently,” Sneax said.
“No,” Nathaniel replied. “We’re here for Draks.”
“Well, you’re still gonna have to come into the hills with me deal with the goblins,” Zelda said. “If you want your lumber, that is.”
“We’ll see about that,” Nathaniel replied coolly. “This is still a negotiation. Or it was until you walked in, anyway.”
Sneax sighed. “It’s already done, Nate. Same as it was already decided that I was coming with you when you showed up back in Wanderhaven. We talked about this back on the ship.”
“Look,” Billy said, “I might’ve chosen to broach the subject another way, but what Zelda said is essentially correct. Not the part about the camp guards, of course, but the rest of it… We’ve been having trouble with goblins, and my efforts to contain the problem have been wholly unsuccessful so far.”
“Efforts?” Zelda asked.
Billy ignored her. “I’ve been in communication with your employer about this for quite some time. He is, I assure you, well aware of the situation up here. I think the fact that he sent three of you, and that you all appear to be well armed and armored speaks to his willingness to deal with the problem in a realistic fashion.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Sneax said.
“Weren’t you just arguing that this was a done deal?” Zelda asked.
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“Regardless,” Billy said, “I think the facts speak for themselves.”
Nathaniel glared at Billy. “You do not command us, sir. And if you think that my companions and I are going to trek blindly into the wilderness on your behalf, with nothing but this… this wild-woman… as a guide, well, you have another thing coming!”
“Easy fire elf,” Zelda said. “I may be a ‘wild-woman’, but I’m the only guide you got. Best you remember that.”
“You’re missing the point, Nate,” Sneax said.
“I most certainly am not!” Nathaniel pointed at Billy. “At the very least, this dishonest popinjay is in serious breach of contract!”
“Come on,” Sneax said. “You knew it was gonna be like this. We were just talking about it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Nathaniel said. “That was just talk.”
“I don’t see what you’re so mad about,” Zelda said. “You’re sittin’ here with your fancy black armor and your shiny sword and shield. You even got a half-giant bodyguard and…” she looked at Sneax, “…whatever short-stuff here is supposed to be.”
“I’m a sprite, thank you very much,” Sneax said. “Some folks call us ‘wee ones’.”
“Whatever,” Zelda replied. “You obviously came here looking for a scrap. Fact is, I could use your help. There’s a ton of loggers missin’, and though you three may not care about that, the people of this town surely do. It ain’t just Billy’s interests on the line, trust me. If it was, I wouldn’t be here. Besides, ain’t all you fire elves supposed to be hot stuff? On fire with the power of your god or something like that?”
“Your ignorance is astonishing,” Nathaniel said. “First off, because I am only half-fire elf, and second, because if you think for one minute that I’m going to help you simply because—”
“Stop,” Zelda said, cutting him off. “Just stop. I don’t care, really. You’re gonna come with me because you need your wood. Am I right, or am I wrong?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“It is, and you know it.”
“You see what I mean?” Sneax said. “Nothing is ever easy with Draks. That’s just the way life is.”
Nathaniel sighed. “This is unbelievable. I expect to be compensated for this, Mr. Braven. This expedition is outside the scope of our agreement.”
“That’s between your employer and me,” Billy said. He returned Nathaniel’s gaze but kept a painfully placid expression on his face. “Once the raiders have been dealt with, I will be more than happy to get you the lumber for which your employer has already contracted. However, I’ve given Draks an excellent price on this particular shipment, and if I am to change the nature of our deal, I’m afraid I must deal with him directly.”
“Billy,” Sneax said, “you better quit flappin’ your lips before somebody cuts ‘em off for you.”
Billy huffed. “My dear, you cannot just—”
“No, she’s right,” Nathaniel said. “We may have to do this, but you’re going to help. I want horses, and I want supplies, or so help me, Braven, I will let the goblins burn this place to the ground. I may even help. Draks may have sent us, but he’s not here, and I will not undertake a mission on behalf of you and your interests without at least a modicum of support from you and the people of this town. Is that clear?”
“I’m sure we can come to some kind of an accommodation—”
“Enough!” Zelda cried. “Quit trying to screw the nice fire elf out of a few coppers, Braven, especially now that he’s agreed to keep your fat ass out of a goblin stew pot! I wanna leave first thing in the morning. It’s more’n a few days’ walk to the nearest logging camp, and walking ain’t the only thing we’re gonna have to do once we get there. Quit arguin’ and get some rest, all of you. Tomorrow’s like to be a long day.”
* * *
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Book 1: Sneakatara Boatman & the Priest of Loki
Book 2: Sneakatara Boatman & the Crown of Pluto