Patina – Chapter 1

Leaves had started oozing a deep crimson, which meant winter was well on its way. 

The Hunter opened his gloved hand and the crumpled leaf fell from his fingers, adding up to the wet pile on the ground. He pursed his lips and kept proceeded downhill towards the river. He had seen smoke and there was a chance he’d find a barge that would accept pelt as payment, no matter for how low those sold as of late. He pulled on the reins of his metal sled, and the engine let out a sputter and whiff of black smoke, which meant he’d have to take care once again of oil and grease… at a moment when those were ever harder to come by. 

A few paces ahead, the line of trees fanned out, revealing grey bushes and the damp, dark grass of late autumn. Beyond the river unfurled itself. It might have been a silver ribbon. Then the barges and boats gathered on the nearest bend might have been mites meeting up for one last shared meal.

He stopped far enough from the barges, tying up his sled to the largest tree he saw, a tall birch which leaves were crimson just on their tip.

“Take care old friend,” he said patting the tree’s bark. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Squaring his shoulders and pulling up all the pelts, he walked down, closer and closer to the barges and to the noises of humanity. That meant he should stop silly things such as talking to himself or patting trees. There were people who wouldn’t like that much, especially if he wanted to sell some of his wares. 

As the spirits would have it, he found no guards on the shore. The barges all belonged to different merchants and families, their sides all painted with different marks and shades, their flags all carrying a different symbol or name. It helped give the drab autumn atmosphere some color. The largest one was a tall white boat, an actual one with sails and the narrower shape that spoke of a saltwater ship. Above the mast rose the standard of the white circle in black field. Probably some Vestal who stopped by to share her blessings. 

He stepped on the fist barge, the wood creaking under his weight.

“Good day,” he said to the people close by, “I have pelts. Fresh ones, top quality for the coming winter.”

The nearest men frowned and gave him a wide berth, waving him off with a gesture of his gloved hand; the rest followed suit. He shrugged and walked forth, exploring the booths (some little more than a plank and two chairs).

He should have expected as much, but this close to winter, most people either bought food, or sold incense and protection for the upcoming tide. The impromptu market also saw farmers selling their last produce, gnawed carrots and moldy onions that nevertheless exchanged many hands. He grimaced, as it had been weeks since he ate anything but dried salty meat and lemons or oranges sold for their weight in silver. 

“Hello,” he said approaching one of the vendors who still had a few lemons for sale, glistening gold even in the grey light of afternoon. “How much for those? And can I offer you one of these?”

The man took one glance at his pelts and clicked his tongue. 

“We have what to cover ourselves with, strangers. It’s not the cold that kills you. If you have amulets or protective circles…” he scratched his chin, shifted his eyes to a small girl who must be his daughter, playing with the merchandise in a corner, “or bullets. Cartridges for eretimes’ rifle, ya know.”

“Sorry, don’t have any,” he lied. Bullets for lemons. “It’s that bad, hmm?”

“It is what it is. This year the Augurs forecast a very bad winter, so prices are through the roof.”

“Hmhm…” he shifted his grey gaze to the tall white boat. Strangely enough, there was no long line of people waiting for their blessings or amulets or holy saltwater. “And here I thought they would sell for cheap with one of them right here.”

“Oh, we got all excited at first, but nobody’d been allowed on it.” He signed himself, tracing a cross over his chest and kissing his lips.

It was pretty weird.

Still, he’d better try to focus on the task at hand. 

“At any rate, know anybody who would be interested in these pelts?”

“Maybe further down the lane,” he said, shooing him away. 

The lane was the series of rafts attached between boats and it was choke-full of people rubbing elbows for a knitted purification veil or a statuette or a loaf of bread. And as luck would have it, they were all dressed heavily in wool and pelts of their own.

In the end, he traced a circle back to the first raft. Sunlight had taken on a golden tinge and it wouldn’t be long before evening would set in.

“I’ll be a merchant in the next life,” he muttered, taking a look at the pelts. All good wool, and tinderwolves used to sell for a nice amount of silver. Maybe when they weren’t as common as rats. “Or a priest…” he mused looking at the boat.

Nobody allowed up-deck, hm? He caught a glimpse of a tall figure dressed in white and frowned.

At this point, what did he have to lose? Worst came to worst, they’d throw him in the river.

He hadn’t taken a bath in five days – it’d be good for his skin. 

He secured the pelts to the hooks in his coat and pulled himself up against the white-painted wood of the boat, huffing as his gloved fingers found purchase on the rough wood. People around him stopped chattering and began to look and point – he expected as much, but he doubted the person he was looking for would care… if she was aboard. 

But then again, shutting herself off like that was her stile.

He scrunched his nose at the stingy smell of fresh paint, but that at least made it a bit easier to find the next crease where to pull himself up. There. One more and…

“Good evening,” he said as he embraced the edge and swung himself onboard, letting out a few pants. Was he that out of shape? 

Among the chattering and whispering from below, the three mariners he met swung their polearms at him in almost total silence. But the figure he had seen…

“I come looking for Mastra Verna, the Vestal and Augur. Is she onboard?”

From behind the mast walked in the same person that caught his eye a few moments before: a tall woman, dressed in all white, her blonde hair kept in a tress over her chest, the upper part of her face covered by a silvery mask. 

“Look who crawled onboard,” she said coming closer. She turned to look at the throng who was starting to approach the boat and let out a sigh. “Rules are the same. Back he goes.” With a flick of her wrist, the three guys with pole arms pushed the dull ends of their weapons onto him and threw him into the river.

“Ver-“ was all he could say as his heart caught in his throat and then the river welcomed him in his cold embrace.

So much for his pelts.

As he resurfaced, Verna was still looking down at him, a thin smile on her lips. She pointed to her right and he swam along the current, taking a hold of the boat on the side that was hidden from the crowd. 

“I would have appreciated a tad more discretion,” she mused leaning against the board. “How’s the water?”

“Freezing,” he spat.

“Maybe it’ll calm down your nerves.” She flicked at the guards. “Wait for the crowd to disperse and then pull this tactless climber up. I’ll wait for him in my quarters.” She shook her head. “And as the fates would have it, there might be a job offer for the brave and foolish.”

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