Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Winding Road: Caravanner Malleck

by Frank Gori

The Sawhorse Tavern was crowded tonight. The Workmen’sGuild had a meeting, so it wasn't just A-shift stragglers and B-shift regulars; the whole guild was out tonight. The place reeked of sawdust, sweat, and sour beer. More than a few eyes found Malleck, despite his hooded cloak and shadowy corner booth.  This made him uncomfortable. The Chaos Man chose this venue for that very effect, to throw Malleck off balance.

There was a buzz of agitation in the room. The workmen were riled up about something, so it was a dangerous night to be an outsider in one of their establishments. Had Malleck been meeting another, he would have simply veiled himself with magic. The Chaos Man, however, would be offended if he did, and Malleck would rather not wait another three months for a meeting.

A group of young orcish apprentice carpenters belonging to one of the more radical sub-guilds kept sizing Malleck up with quick glances. Sooner or later, one might get drunk, call him Tu’rid, and mockingly challenge him. The Workmen’s Guild made it easy to read a member’s affiliations by a quick glance to the tool belts they all wore. The white leather belts told him they were apprentices, the painted red hammer worn on the left hip loop their profession and sub-guild, but the blue-handled hatchet was a newer insignia tool he didn't recognize.

The story of Malleck’s mixed blood was there to read in his face. His tusks indicated orc blood, but the small size and lack of under-bite revealed that he was not a full blood. His surname, “Smallbite”, was given to half-orcish bastards for this very reason. The elegantly pointed ears and the slightly-canted, severely green eyes both indicated elvish blood, which was always the problem. Kindred races were generally blasé of racial intermingling, except of course for the stigma associated with badbloods. To the ignorant and intolerant, his very face was an insult to the Nameless One, who died of treachery at the hands of his brother Mar’ies - the first elf.  From the Nameless One’s body were born theKindred.

This dive could be trouble for Malleck, which is why he brought a Sunder. The Blacksmiths Guild hired out mercenary bodyguards, called Sunders, to the Merchants' Guild all the time. Malleck always hired the same one: a lizard man named Zool. Malleck had never seen Zool’s wares as a smith, but the man was a virtuoso with his strange array of scimitar, spiked buckler (which he strapped to his sword arm), hand crossbow, and what Malleck suspected was a dash of magic. Zool was giving the orcs a look that killed their curiosity, for the moment.

The Chaos Man was over an hour late again, making Mal wonder when he would arrive. What game the Chaos Man would play this time was the next question? No matter what face he wore (if indeed the Chaos Man was just one individual) there was always a game of some sort during their meetings. When he first wore the face of a horridly scarred minotaur, the game was questions: he would ignore each statement that wasn't a question, and only answer questions with another question. It was a terribly irritating way to negotiate, but the Caravanner didn't earn his position in the guild by lacking the ability to adapt. On the second meeting, the Chaos Man was a Dwarf with mismatched eyes who wished to play an elaborate version of stones that required drinking. Though the Chaos Man never appeared to be the same person, he always remembered prior conversations and business, always played games, and was always late.

Theories in Mal's files back at the guild varied widely. Some said he was one man who wore a thousand faces.  Others insisted that the Chaos Man was actually just a title, a position that was in a near constant state of flux. Whoever he was, he always maintained the deadly sort of confidence that comes from the power to kill. As long as Malleck could get the deal he came to make, he didn't care who he was dealing with.

Despite the passage of centuries, there were outlying villages close to the frozen heart of the North that still maintained loyalty to the Empire. Reputedly one, Tribute, had ore so fine and pure that the Blacksmiths Guild would pay triple per shipment. If the Caravanner could establish a route, he’d likely be elevated; such discoveries and dealings made careers within the Merchants' Guild. Most importantly, Liara would be proud of him.

Liara rarely showed emotion, but Malleck believed she held a mother’s love for the adopted orphans she took into the guild. Behind her whispered orders and small tight smiles was a woman that cared deeply for once discarded-children. She herself was discarded, in a way. She adopted from the orphanages frequently, and many of her orphans rose high in the guild. While more cynical minds might think she adopted and raised orphans to ensure the guild's upper ranks were filled with the fiercely loyal, others said she saw something special in each adoptee. Malleck chose to regard Liara as his true mother, as opposed to the woman that left him on the steps of an orphanage without so much as a note. To Malleck the guild was family, and family was everything.

To make his family proud, Malleck needed the deal to go through. Liara would not risk a caravan north unless Malleck could secure additional security from the Mages' Guild. Trading with the loyalist mining town was a risk, but the potential reward was high.  The journey was perilous, particularly if the frozen elves decided to attack. Fire magic could serve as a deterrent, but...

The ring of a crossbow bolt striking the rapidly drawn blade of Zool less than half a foot from his face reminded Malleck of Liara’s 12th rule: “Never disregard the present situation.” Someone screamed “Shenanigans,” and the whole bar erupted into chaos. Except, of course, for the group of five orcs who were calmly approaching with naked steel.