The huge western gates of Dra'tol stood wide open and the thoroughfare of the surrounding farmland poured through. Handcarts and ox wagons rolled past the guards leaning against the wall, whilst the less fortunate carried their wares in to market on their backs. Even though it was still winter the entry was crowded. Even in the darkest months farmers continued to find produce to bring in; most of it pickled, smoked or salted. A cart driven by a monk from the local Askian monastery carried in a load of huge ale barrels, a product much in demand in the cold, dark winter. Through this muddle, the mail coach rushed, the crowds scattering to the sides of the road as the driver's horn announced their approach. Jezz, gazing out of the window, saw the huge curtain wall stretching out on either side of the gate, enclosing the huge docks where the vast city met the Mara River, currently frozen over, even at this late stage in its long journey to the sea. The docks were empty, save for the few souls attempting to skate on the thick ice, the ships owned by those living in the city had long before been drawn out of the river into winter dry storage and frozen river meant that no trading ships could force their way up the river to their regular docking points. Instead, they would moor in the docks of Dra'hem on the sea where the river ended, and the ox trains from there added to the traffic flowing through the gates of the vast trading city.
Beyond the docks lay the main attraction of Dra’tol, the reason for its great financial success and, indeed, its very existence. The Godbridge, forged by Ask Himself from the living bedrock, stretched in three huge spans across the river, connecting the two banks of the mighty waterway with a wide band of golden-white stone. The entire bridge appeared to be made of one piece of stone, but it was anything but crude. Huge towers lined the sides like an honor guard, each one hollowed out to contain a spiral staircase leading to the buttressed top. They were manned at all times, and fitted to the top of each- in a rather inelegant fashion, indicative of the work of mortals- was a large ballista. In the summer these were positioned so that every single ship that passed through faced a possible hail of flaming bolts, but with the river frozen their crews were mostly clustered around the large braziers used for lighting the resin soaked projectiles, trying to ward off cold and crushing boredom until their shifts ended.
The mail coach rushed through the cold, but busy, streets towards the bridge and the post station. The houses on either side were built mostly out of wood, but as they grew closer to the bridge the quality of the buildings increased, to live near the bridge was a luxury afforded only to those who could afford the large tithes required to build on what was, technically, holy ground. Around the foot of the bridge the only buildings allowed were the huge, many pillared temple of Ask, the god of architecture, and the official imperial buildings of state: the Mayor’s manor, the treasury and the grand regional post station. The station was, like all of the buildings around it, a masterpiece of architecture: a huge façade faced the street, decorated with pillars, arches and more gargoyles than were strictly necessary. It was onto the steps of this magnificent building that Dorvic, Jezzika and Mill now stepped.
Whilst the pilgrims around them stood and gawped at the sheer majesty of the architecture surrounding them, the three friends quickly pushed though the crowds around the temple grounds and headed toward the market district through the narrow, slush filled streets, as they got further from the bridge the streets grew emptier, until at last they found themselves almost alone as they hurried through the winding, narrow closes. As they wound their way away from the holy ground, the buildings became less magnificent and more practical, less stonework and more wood paneling. Eventually they found themselves in a rather nondescript square, with a statue in the center of some long-forgotten hero looking heroic and pensive, a look which was spoilt somewhat by the facial hair that some mischievous drunken temple initiates had drawn on it.
Dorvic looked around the empty square; it was surrounded on all sides by tall houses of wood, all with small, many-framed, windows. Across the open cobbles was a rather unusual-looking shop; the windows had been completely boarded up and the door had clearly been re-enforced considerably. Hanging above the door was a sign consisting of a large jeweled ring, beneath it was written ‘Smith and Gredson: Dwarven Jewelers’, Dorvic pointed it out to Jezz,
“That’s ma cousin’s shop there, they should be in, but I dinnae ken, it looks kindae closed.”
“This whole area seems half deserted.” Said Jezzika, “Are we here at the wrong time of day, or is it always this quiet?”
This place is full of fear, the people are hiding.
Dorvic looked around again,
“I cannae see anyone, so whatever it is their sacred of, it’s no here right now.”
“Or it’s well hidden,” countered Jezz, “but whatever the case, it’s bloody cold, let’s get see if we can get inside.”
The three hurried across the square to the boarded up shop and Dorvic tried the door, it was barred shut from the inside, but as soon as he has rattled the handle, there was the sound of movement from inside and a voice shouted,
“Who are you, and what do you want?”
“It’s me Graem, Dorvic; yer cousin frae the north! Can yeh let us in?”
“Dorvic?” the voice sounded surprised and delighted, “Just give me one second, the bolts are a pain to undo.”
There was a scrape of a heavy wooden plank being heaved out of its sockets, followed by the heavy metallic ‘clank’ of the lock, and the door swung inwards to reveal the face of a relatively tall, clean shaven dwarf with smoked welding goggles pushed up onto her forehead. In her right hand she still held a heavy mace, which she laid against the wall before rushing forward and grasping Dorvic’s shoulders with both hands.
“It’s been too long, cousin!” she exclaimed as Dorvic returned the greeting, “Come in, come in!”
She ushered them in and set about re-locking the door,
“As you may have guessed, you’ve come at a slightly unfortunate time. The Guilds are trying to shut us down again; they can’t stand the idea of independents being successful, especially non-humans.”
She finally wrestled the latch back into place and dusted her hands,
“They’ve been sending thugs around almost daily now, and started threatening anyone who tries to come in, it’s only a matter of time before things get violent, but when they do…” She indicated the mace with a sideways nod, “We’ll be ready for them.”
She then turned to Jezz, bowing slightly,
“And what is your name milady?”
“Jezzika Thredsdóttir,” she replied, returning the bow, “I am honored to meet a relative of Dorvic’s.”
“And I am honored to meet his friend,” said Gream, straightening up and turning to the third member of the party. There was a slight pause, as she stared into Mill’s dark hood. Finally, in a low, slightly panicked, voice she said,
“How did you get this close without me sensing you?”
You are overwhelmed with worry, you cannot feel any more.
“Hmph,” the dwarf shivered slightly, more at the prospect of a lych sneaking up on her than Mill’s presence, “well, if Dorvic trusts you, I suppose I can put up with you.”
She turned again to face Dorvic, conveniently missing the look of extreme anger that Jezzika shot at her,
“Come round to the back, there’s a couple of people I want you to meet.”
She led the way through the shop floor, which was full of shelves covered in some of the most exquisite jewelry that Dorvic or Jezz had ever seen. If a stone was moldable, then it was there, surrounded and upheld by intricate, beautiful metalwork. From diamonds to common glass beads, mounted in everything from platinum to brass. Jezzika, forgetting for a moment her anger at Gream’s reaction to Mill, paused briefly to examine a few heavily-studded silver bangles, but the dwarf beckoned her on,
“Come on, there will be time enough to browse later. Right now I’d like to introduce you to the rest of our little outfit.”
In the back of the shop there was a converted courtyard. At the far end the yard was uncovered, and a large furnace took up most of the back wall, mostly dead, but with a few wisps of smoke drifting up to the short brick chimney on top of the wide cover that kept rain and snow from the coals. The rest of the space was covered by a wooden roof, slanted to direct precipitation into the yard next door. Thick wooden walls kept the worst of the wind out, and a several large oil lamps swung from the underside of the roof slats to provide light. The roofed area contained several workbenches, covered with the tools of the jeweler’s trade: various different hammers, wire brushes, chisels and tongs lay in ordered rows, some in leather satchels, some simply lay on the benches. Beside the furnace sat a tall, slightly scrawny man with short, fuzzy brown hair. He was trying to puff some life into a clay pipe, apparently oblivious to the futility of his quest, and as the three approached him he appeared to be idly searching with a poker for a coal that had retained enough fire to relight it.
“Stephen!” Gream called from across the room, “We have guests! This is my cousin from up north, Dorvic.” The man looked up, waved, and went back to searching for a lit coal.
“Stephen is our metalsmith: he’s the one responsible for most of the items we sell.”
Jezzika looked confused, “Your sign says Dwarven jewelers though, and I thought…”
“Most people think dwarves are better with metal than humans,” Gream replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, “that’s why they’re willing to pay more for what we sell. To be honest, I’m hopeless with metals, and only slightly better with gems. I mostly manage the sales; it’s what I’m good at.”
As she was talking, a second dwarf came down the stairs behind them. Superficially, he looked a little like Dorvic. His beard was a similar shade of brown, and done in a similar style, and they were almost identical heights. There all similarity ended, but it was enough that Jezzika did a small double-take before she got a proper look at his face.
“Ah, there you are Theo. This is my cousin from Norõan, Dorvic, and his friend Jezzika, from...” Gream paused and turned to the woman, “Where is it you’re from?”
“Esk Dra’anoch, actually. My father owns a small bakery on the sixteenth tier.”
Theo, however, was staring at Mill with hatred in his eyes,
“What the devil is your cousin doing running around with a bloody lych?”
Dorvic put his face in his hands, as Jezzika moved hers towards her sword hilt, her eyes narrowing to angry slits, a hiss of anger escaping her teeth. There was a sudden tension in the room; Theo had frozen, his eyes darting between the undead and the apparently insane woman; Jezzika was staring down the unfortunate dwarf; sword partially drawn; Dorvic and Gream looked on, with appropriate looks of resignation and worry respectively. They remained frozen for what seemed like years, until Stephen’s voice cut through the silence.
“Is Theo being an intolerant prick again? He tends to do that from time to time, it’s best to ignore most things he says.”
The sound broke up the tension a little, Gream shot Theo a very meaningful look, and he retreated back up the stairs, though the look in his eyes never abated. Gream heaved a sigh as he disappeared.
“I’d ask you to forgive him, but frankly I don’t think he deserves it. He’s a bit conservative in his views on anyone who’s not dwarven or human, and he’s only just gotten around to the idea that humans are worth keeping, Stephen here did that. Challenged him to a smithing contest and beat him easily.”
Stephen, giving up on his quest for an ember, stood up and grinned.
“You should have seen the look on his face, ‘twas priceless. He still hasn’t forgiven me for that. He’s a wonder with gemstones of any type, but not too bright when it comes to metal. He can make a good axe or sword, but nothing more sophisticated." He walked over to the group, looking breifly up the stairs that Theo had retreated up, "By my guess he’ll be sulking for an hour or two before he shows his face again, so we’ve got a bit of time to talk without resorting to weapons. What brings you to Dra’tol at the arse-end of the year?”
Dorvic relaxed a little and tapped the side of his nose,
“Business, and I cannae tell yeh any more than that. We’ve got ourselves a proper job this time, and our boss disnae want us blabbin’ about it.”
Gream instantly pricked up, her worry replaced by intrigue
“Oh come on, you know you can trust us not to tell anyone. Besides we might be able to help you, we’ve got hundreds of contacts around the city, if it’s anything here, we can get you information without you having to ask anyone.”
Dorvic looked to Jezz, who shugged. She seemed to have completely recovered from her bout of anger a few seconds earlier,
“It sounds like a good idea. If we really can trust them, they could be of great help to us. It would be far less suspicious to have them asking questions than us.”
The dwarf looked over to the shadowy figure of the lych,
“Mill, yer thoughts?”
They are trustworthy.
“Well, if we’re all in agreement, I might as well see if yeh can help at all. It’s a bit of a tale though, and we’ve no eaten today, yeh mind if I tell it over dinner?”