Oliana and Keon made the steep climb up the foothill to Stromton. Snowflakes sparsely littered the ground and sky, but the most wearying part of the journey was the determined, icy wind that sought to diminish their progress. Oliana could feel her cheeks burning and eyes watering. As their ascent continued, the terrain transformed from forested wilderness to craggy uplands. Soft grey clouds buried the sky above their heads and tawny, scant underbrush skirted the path beneath their feet. The wind whistled through the fells so that even Keon would not attempt to speak over its fifing tones.
In a few hours, they approached the peak, which a low-hanging cloud had swallowed in white. Oliana hesitated.
“What’s wrong dear, never seen a bit of fog before? It’s not a magic ward, if that’s what worries you,” he laughed, stepping into obscurity. His voice came back, “It’ll be clear in a couple of hours. The gate is just through here.”
Oliana followed him into the cloud. The wind seemed to cease almost immediately. The actual peak of the large hill, it seemed, was an overhang that shielded the city from the unforgiving gusts. A bit more walking and Oliana could hear voices, following a rough outline of Stromton. Though it was difficult to see through the mist, Oliana marvelled at the great stone walls that surrounded the fortress; of all the strange places she had been of late, this was, to her, the most impressive-- a far cry from her tiny village in the valley.
Keon appeared as though he would stroll right up to the large facade.
“Wait!” Oliana said before he got too close. “Aren’t you going to debrief me somehow? I’ve never”--she hushed her voice-- “stolen anything before.” She knew that she would succeed in being helpful in the heist, for succeed she must, but she wanted to see to it that she was given every advantage.
“Oh, there’ll be plenty of time for that, dear. We’re both going to familiarize ourselves with the opportunities first, and then tonight, we’ll strike.”
As the grand wooden doors of the gate swung open, the bustling of the marketplace and tightly-packed buildings incited even more wonder within Oliana. Never in her life had she seen so many people in one place. Not only was there quite a commotion in the streets, but there were colorful decorations, as well. Banners lined the roads and laughing, running children donned wolf masks.
“Welcome to the little town of Stromton,” Keon joshed upon seeing her expression. “Did I mention there’s a festival tonight?”
Dechar tried to resituate his wulfen body between the tree and the chains, but his efforts to shift position under the tight windings were to little avail. It suddenly struck him that Ylva must have frozen the night before in her ripped-up dress.
“Ylva,” he addressed her. Being tied up at nearly opposite sides of the tree, his position only afforded him a partial view of his companion. “Are you alright? It must be so cold for you.”
“I’m alright,” her voice was thin.
Dechar sighed. “No, you’re not. I can hear shivers in your speech. I bet one of these Alfar has a spare cloak; I can try to get their attention for you.”
“Hey!” Dechar yelled, and the dark blue faces of the Alfarian men turned to him. “Head elf! She’s cold,” Dechar jerked his head in Ylva’s direction and looked at Orlo. “Needs a cloak.”
“They don’t understand you, remember?” Ylva said.
“You’re right,” Dechar said. “HEY! Asshole! Blue Dick! Yeah, you, you giant ink blot! Come over here!”
Ylva started laughing despite herself, but her snickers turned to dry coughs. Orlo, taking note of this, finally stepped his widely-built frame over to the tree and covered Ylva in his own, readily-warmed cloak. Then he looked sternly at Dechar. “Asshole,” he said.
While Oliana still stood just inside the gate, taking in the novelty of the city’s atmosphere, Keon’s gaze sifted through the crowd, keeping an eye out for any drawings of criminals that might be posted. If he were to find himself on one of them, he would have to be particularly cautious. Nothing yet, he thought to himself, satisfied, but he would keep an eye out. These postings could be anywhere in the city.
He had brought with him two large, empty sacks, which he could easily explain as being intended for holding newly-purchased keepsakes on a day such as this. He also wore a satchel which housed a dagger and coins. It was always best to have money on hand in case a witness had to be paid off.
“There you are,” he heard woman’s voice behind him. “Keon, my ‘dear,’ you haven’t visited me in months!” He turned to see the rubenesque, scantily-dressed figure of a young woman. She giggled obnoxiously, and the mole on her face moved up and down accordingly.
“Well, hello, Clara,” he said nervously, watching as Oliana began to walk toward him. “That’s for good reason, actually. You see, I only visited you in the first place because I was utterly drunk, and the horror of waking up next to a girl like you has led me to avoid you ever since.” He grabbed Oliana by the arm and moved her quickly into the shifting crowd as the woman began to yell curses at him.
“What was that about?” Oliana asked, only having heard that last few words of the conversation.
“Just an old… friend. But we’ve just gone our separate ways, you see.” He sought to redirect the conversation. “How would you like to visit the merchant stalls, dear? They’re just down a ways from this food market.”
Oliana nodded. “I’d like to, yes, but do tell me what this festival is all about. What are the masks for?”
“The masks? They’re greywolf masks. The people of Stromton have an extensive history of hating the Dechi that goes back long before our fathers’ time. They celebrate an ancient victory against their enemies that drove them back from their lands forever. It’s mostly for fun, these days. They’ll burn a giant wolf in effigy and display lantern kites tonight. Most people watch from the rooftops while the burning takes place just outside the walls. And when everyone’s distracted, dear, that’s when we’ll make our move at the stalls. You can find all manner of rare goods at a time like this.”
Oliana’s mind had drifted away from his conversation at the mention of 'our fathers.' What were his origins?
“Speaking of the past, how does a human like you end up in the company of Alfarian bandits?”
The question came unexpectedly for Keon. “That’s privileged information, dear, but seeing as you’re my new partner in this outfit, I suppose I ought to tell you something of myself.”