Tensions were running high during the next hike to Gatespoke; what was once a lucrative venture had become one with no reward. Una and Inga had determination in their step, coupled with a bit of aggression; something Signey and Wary had noted throughout the journey. They spoke softly to each other while the girls marched ahead, wondering if they had something planned, but there was no more time for speculation.
“We will complete this trade as usual, girls.” Signey said, optimistically. “There will be plenty of time for disruption back home.”
“Right.” Wary added. “You don’t want to go picking fights in the wrong places. After all, it’s not Hild you’re upset with.”
The girls just kept moving onward without a reply.
When they reached Hild’s trading outpost, they began the established routine of unloading in back, handing everything off to Ketill, and proceeding around front to receive payment; nothing was amiss as they entered the shop.
“How’s business, Hild?” Asked Wary, with a bright smile.
Just then, Signey could feel a presence behind her and spun around to find Ketill blocking the entryway.
“You haven’t held up your end of the deal,” seethed Hild. She clutched a dagger and Ketill drew his sword.
“Easy Hild!” Una shouted. “What do you mean? We bring what you ask for. You get the full order, on time, every time.”
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with my order.”
Una shook her head with confusion. “Then what’s the problem?”
“Other shops having been selling the same grains, child! We had a deal!”
“It can’t be! We aren’t selling to anyone else, Hild.”
“You are disloyal!”
“Hey!” Una’s voice cut through the yelling. She closed in on Hild and continued with a quiet, but serious tone. “We never go back on our word. Never.”
“Then you’ve got two problems.” Hild said, pointing her dagger in between Una’s eyes. “If you aren’t selling the grains to someone else, you’ve got to find out who is and stop them. Our arrangement was that I’d be the only seller in Gatespoke, and that’s not the case.”
“What’s the other problem?”
“You’re going to need to learn that sometimes you have to double-cross people.” She lowered her dagger and ordered Ketill to let them leave. “If you don’t find out who’s undercutting me, you might as well run and hide like cowards. Ketill will have orders to cut off your heads.”
They filed out onto the street. Wary was beside himself.
“We can’t catch a break! How are we supposed to find out where the other shipment is coming from? Shake down merchants like thugs?”
“It won't come to that,” said Una as she and her sister eye’d a trader exchange down the road.
“Can I help you?” The owner greeted.
His name was Vog. He was a large man, overweight with a round face, but carried it well. His presence was powerful and suggested he possessed great strength.
“I see you have some fine grains for sale.” Una said, pointing at a display along the wall. “Can I ask the name of your seller?”
Vog let out a guffaw. “So they’re sending cute little girls to pry it out of me now? Go tell them nice try, but I’m not biting.”
“No one sent us, sir. We’re looking into a matter that could be bad for all of us… including yourself.” She leaned in for emphasis, but it didn’t faze the dealer.
“Threats only make me stubborn, and I’m making too much money from this stuff to be bribed.”
He flicked his wrist, telling Una to leave, when Signey walked through the door. She and Wary had fallen behind the girls and lost them in the crowd.
“There you are! You have to make sure we’re all together!” She put an arm around Inga who was glaring at Vog. A grin came over him as soon as he laid eyes on Signey, which disgusted her; he suddenly looked like a maniacal creep.
“This is rather interesting.” He whispered to Una. “You may have something to bribe me with, after all.”
Una squinted at him in bewilderment, ignorant to what he was referring.
“There is one thing I enjoy more than money.” His eyes drank Signey in.
“You worm!” Inga screamed. She tried to make a move toward him, but Signey held her back and added.
“I am not for sale. We’re leaving.”
Vog interjected. “All the more appealing! There’s a house down the way with woman I can buy. My desire is simple; I want what I can’t have.”
Wary tried to initiate their exit. “We’re not listening to any more of this.”
“Wait!” Una protested. “Give us the name first.”
“I’m not a fool. You only get the name when I am done, and just for that I want her for two nights!”
Una stood tall, but still could not match his size by a long shot. He smiled at the paltry attempt of intimidation.
“If your situation is as bad as you say, you might want to try telling the woman that a couple nights with old Vog aren’t as bad as death.”
“No… I’m sure you’re worse.”
“Can I just point out that our situation is worsening by the minute, here?” observed Wary.
“Maybe it’s time to go home, girls.” Signey warned. “We’ll stay away from here and put things back the way they were.”
“How?” Inga asked, fervently. “We have to pay the King his taxes now or the giants will destroy Wilverth! No one ever stands up to him, it’s like we are cursed.”
They began shouting over one another while Una stood in silence.
“Everyone quite!” Said Wary. “Una, why aren’t you saying anything?”
She seemed to be searching for something in the recesses of her mind. Her jaw dropped a bit and she licked her lips to speak.
“I think I have a plan.”
Vog closed his shop that night well after dark, excited for the plans he had made for himself. He walked hastily down the roads, slipping past others with ease. He was rather athletic for his size, navigating the narrow paths well. He reached the outskirts of the city, following a passageway on the side of the far mountain that led down, off the edge of the bridge. There, he approached a two-story house, the front made of wooden planks, but the structure itself was built into the rocks. Upon entering, the walls turned to stone and featured a staircase that led to a lofted area where several rooms had been built. Below the lofts was a bar separating the patrons from a small stage with doorways covered in red curtains on each end. Vog grabbed a vacant seat and watched as women, one by one, sauntered into view. They each had but a moment to do a twirl, or a wave, or give some flirtatious gesture to one of the men in the house, before exiting on the opposite end. Sporadically, as one of the women did her convincing on stage, one of the men would whistle, or bark, or did what they preferred to make it known that this was the one for them. If two or more had called for the right to the woman, it was the bartender's job to award her to whomever he heard first; unless, of course, they decided to take the woman at the same time.
“Vog, I’m sorry, your usual isn’t here tonight.” The bartender informed him.
“That won’t be a problem, I’m looking for something a little different this time.”
“Well, let me know when you find it. There’s plenty to work with back there.”
The parade continued, some of the girls were called for while others went in back, presumably to get in line again. Vog promptly sucked down two cups of ale and watched on, trying to guess which guest would holler at each girl. Then a woman appeared on stage that caught his eye. He couldn’t tell if he had seen her before, he had never looked for her features until now. High cheekbones, a strong looking nose, long black hair braided up in the back. She looked like the woman he had seen earlier that day. She looked like Signey.
Another man whistled for her, but Vog stood and flipped a coin at the barkeep.
“That one’s mine.”
He was awarded the tiebreaker.