Arrowbait – Hats and Feathers

Chapter 2

Eloh’s streets were wet from a shower that’d snuck in at the crack of dawn, now no more than a fine drizzle that wrapped the city in a cool, grey mist.
Drab mists. Drab and entirely too chilly, or so Sadja decided the moment she stepped out from Squirrila’s posh rooms, her boots snapping down on slippery cobblestone. Two steps and she threw her hood over her head, warding her cheeks from the drizzle, and her ears from the judging eyes of other early-risers.

Eloh had plenty of those. The early risers and the judgemental, superstitious alike. The sort that’d look at her funny and with an edge of fear, because they knew about as much about the vidralfar as she knew about the South.

Like… did it ever rain there? In the South? Ever? What about snow? Did it have snow? She hated snow. It was bright and it was cold and wet. And then there was more south past that south, past the Imperial Heartland and beyond. How did one wrap their elven head around that?

So she hid her ears for now, not wanting to draw attention this early, with the sun still lazily snuggled against the horizon somewhere, and mingled with the rest of the early birds.

Servants, mostly, of one sort or the other, their clothes simple and their purpose, too. Be out early. Get the washings done, draw water from the nearest well, or fill empty wicker baskets with whatever’d be for supper. So they were all headed into one direction: down Eloh’s gentle slope, away from the narrow alleys between thick stone walls, and down to where the buildings hunkered a little lower and markets opened with the rise of the day.

Did cities down South look like this, too? With keeps and castles and a temple to their oddly smooth god? She snorted. Their gods all came made from silky looking alabaster skin hewn out of pretty rock. And they had these tiny, tiny man-jewels.

Droll, those.

But their city, that wasn’t small, and Sadja wondered if the ones down South also got as big as Eloh. Maybe even bigger? Nah. Couldn’t be. What else could you possibly want to stick together? More keeps? More castles? Even more shops, like the ones she passed on the way?

Some of them had glass windows even, wide ones that threw her reflection back at her. Behind one she found thickly bound books, their pages bared as they rested on red velvet pedestals. Another had fat vials and corked bottles presented on clean, ordered shelves, and one further down, she spotted a bunch of ridiculous shawls and boots and hats.

Sadja stopped with a scuff of her soles over stone, folded her hands behind her back, and leaned forward to peer at one hat in particular. It had a brim so wide, she thought it’d make for a good roof. One big enough for a small family to huddle under, with a thick bushel of colourful feathers protruding from the back of it.

She thought it was the ugliest things she’d ever seen, and that she’d love it on her head, when something entirely else landed there. It was small and featherlight, but had claws so sharp they pierced through the thick fabric of her hood and pinched her scalp.

“Worm?”

Sadja tilted her head. The motion got the small kestrel that’d perched on there to lean to the side, wings spread slightly. Fweep? he chirred, inquisitive, his head bobbing and chest feathers puffed. He didn’t give a lick about her right now, but only had eyes for that other bird atop the head of yet another her. Much like him, that other bird was made of a mottled mess of steel grey and light brown, with its chest a honey colour matching the reflection of Sadja’s eyes.

Naturally, Worm fell head over talon in love. Which was droll and all, but also real sad, so Sadja stood and offered him her wrist.

“You’re flirting with yourself, you daft chicken.”

Worm chirred, hopped onto her wrist, and let himself be offloaded on her shoulder. Though he kept bobbing, his tail going up and down and up and down, still hoping he’d found the love of his life and oh so ready to build a nest.

“I have us a job for tonight,” she told him and got to walking again. “And who knows. Maybe there’s a South waiting for us after that, Worm. Somewhere. A bit less of—“ Her hand came up, caught some water dripping from an awning. “—all that wet here.”

Fweep. Fwee-eep?

“Clearly it’d have beautiful lady kestrels.”

Fweep.

He puffed up. Feathers so thick, he’d grown to trice his size, and then got to grooming that ridiculously fluffed up chest on him.

The streets widened eventually. Made room enough for carriages, and Sadja had to step aside of one ratting by, the hollow clop of hooves on the cobblestones echoing loud and sharp probably all the way back up to where the fancy folks lived.

Noise did travel quite well between the stone buildings. Not like in the forests, where a bed of moss, fallen leaves and moist earth soaked up every step if you knew just how. Like Sadja. She knew how. Knew, too, how not to make a racket generally anywhere, thank you very much.

Still.

Tonight was going to be a bucket of fun and then some.

Sadja sidestepped a puddle, her arm swinging out to hold her balance. Then she danced around another and another. The evenly hewn cobblestones stopped being just as even. The stone walls got fewer, too. Soon it was all wood and earth and the smell of fresh bread, roasted meats, and the sharp edge of smoke and iron.

“She gave me a key,” she told Worm and fished for the thing in a pocket lining her coat. It was thick and square and looked a little odd, with carvings in it and way too many grooves. She held it up and squinted at it.

Fweep? The kestrel moved up her shoulder some, one claw snatching on the cowl, until he got just enough reach to click his beak against the key.

“It’s for a door meant to lead right into the treasury. Neat, mh? Squirrila said no one picks a proper Marks lock. That I shouldn’t even try.” She turned the key a little, studying the blocky teeth with a sideways glance. “Fair, I suppose.”

Worm clicked his beak and let out a row of chirrs that got her to roll her eyes.

“I can pick locks.”

Fweep.

“Some,” she added and stuffed the key back into its pocket. “Now shush before I pluck you. You’d be freezing your stubby naked chicken wings off real quick.”

The markets opened up in a wide square, its centrepiece a well. Stalls cropped up in a haphazardly pattern, like they tried to be in a neat line but failed on all accounts. Butchers, farmers, weavers. Herbalists. Clothiers. It was a buzz of colours and movement and scents all about as everyone crowded into the space best as they could. There were fat, smoked lamb legs hanging from hooks right next to brightly coloured linen, and pastries sitting side by side to fresh produce stacked in baskets.

Sadja’s stomach pinched at the smells and sights of it all. So she did some pinching of her own.

With a shrug of her shoulder and the click of her tongue, Worm took off. He was nimble and he was quick, a blur of brown feathers flitting straight up. Not like he had to hover there for long. A glance and a nod were all it took, and he darted out of the air again, straight into a burly butcher’s thick, curly hair.

“Hestia’s bleeding—” He swung at his own head. Missed Worm by a league, smacked himself right on the nose and reeled after the kestrel. “Get back here!”

Sadja snickered. Slunk forward to the edge of the stall. There was laughter. Lots of pointing, too, and Worm, his wings flapping about like he’d just came up from marinating in a wine barrel. He knocked over an entire stack of cheese, rolls of it bouncing off the ground, and got everyone to pay real good attention. By the time anyone’d got anywhere near catching him, Sadja had already vanished a few strips of meat under her coat, right along with a big, warm pie.

The square itself was surrounded by stubby, wooden two-story buildings, their dark roofs covered in lichen and moss. There was a tavern on the east side, with troughs out front and a lone horse hitched off to the side. A plaque with a golden pickaxe hung over its door, since everything— absolutely everything in Eloh had to go on about their dank, dark mines. It was probably named after them too, though not like Sadja would know. She read their language about as well as they read hers. Not at all.

Sadja sniffed, her eyes cutting right. Soap. There, under stilted awnings, stone basins attracted the local washerwomen, where they scrubbed and gossiped all day long. They were at it already, having picked Eloh’s favourite topic of the season: Beastfolk.

Beastfolk this. Beastfolk that. Did you hear about how they’ve got all cosy up in the— bla, bla, bla—

Dreadfully boring, so Sadja kept walking. Didn’t need clean clothes for tonight anyway. Needed iron spikes though. Maybe a hook. Some rope. Food in her belly.

First things first though. She stuck out her right elbow for Worm to land on, his talons pinpricks on her skin as he climbed up along her arm to perch on her shoulder again.

“You’re the best chicken ever. Anyone ever told you that?”

Fweep, he said, nipping at her cowl. Least until she offered him one of the strips of dried meat.

The pie was delicious. Messy, too. The moment she broke it open, hot meaty juices dripped over her fingers, and the first bite burnt her tongue. Was worth it though, and for a little while, Sadja stood in everyone’s way chewing through her breakfast.

“There’s a tower at the back of the keep,” she said in-between bites. “Has got no guards in it, Squirrila said, since the only way in is through the top. You can tell where this is headed, mh?”

Worm puffed up a muffled trill.

“Mh. Exactly.”

Her next stop for the day was the smithy and tool shop, and Sadja reached it with her finger still stuck in her mouth to the second knuckle. No need wasting all that gravy, no?

The place was really hard to miss, what with how it took up an entire corner and then some, and had smoke curling lazily into the overcast, damp skies. Plus, the constant clink of metal striking metal as it got hammered into some shape or the other. Sadja followed both through a door up front. Above it, a sword had been affixed to the wood. Right along with— you guessed right —a pickaxe.

She rolled her eyes.

More tools and blunted weapons lined chalk painted walls in the entrance hall, right before said hall opened up into a courtyard. The smith toiled at his forge by the back of it, while the rest of it was crowded by the organised chaos of shelves and racks holding finished and unfinished wares alike.

“Customer!” he called out while mid-swing, followed by a the CLINK of the hammer striking. It flushed a squat woman out of another doorway, plump and full from hip to chin. And the smile she wore was so damn big, Sadja feared she might get eaten by accident alone.

Sadja left the blacksmith’s uneaten, and with a linen sack weighed down by five iron spikes, a hook, and probably way more rope than she’d need.

For anchoring and building a tent, of course.

Promise.

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