TWELVE: The Stranger in Hammerfest
Hammerfest was a storybook town in a storybook land cozy with storybook people. Plump blonde girls with ribboned braids, rosy cheeks, and ready smiles tripped up and down the snowy streets. Tall young men hurried from one picturesque shop to another in pursuit of the business of their apprentice-ships, yet were never so hurried that they hadn't time to welcome a stranger. Laughing children sped down the main street on sleds with barrel staves for runners. Their dogs yapped and floundered after them.
The thin man in the dark cloak stood taking it in for a time. He ignored the nibbling of a wind far colder than any of his homeland. It was warmer than those he had endured the past few months.
Tall, steep-roofed houses crowded and hung over the rising, twisting street, yet he didn't feel as confined as he had in towns less densely built. There was a warm friendliness to Hammerfest, a family feeling, as though the houses were cuddling from love, not necessity.
His gaze lingered on the smoke rising from a tall stone chimney topped by a rack where storks nested in summer. He watched the vapors rise till they passed between himself and a small, crumbling fortress atop the hill the town climbed. Peace had reigned here for a generation. The brutal vicissitudes of Trolledyngjan politics had passed Hammerfest by.
A sled whipped past, carrying a brace of screaming youngsters. The dark man leapt an instant before it could hit him, slipped, fell. The snow's cold kiss burned his cheek.
"They don't realize, so I'll apologize for them."
A pair of shaggy boots entered his vision, attached to pillars of legs. A huge, grizzled man offered a hand. He accepted.
"Thank you. No harm done." He spoke the language well. "Children will be children. Let them enjoy while they can."
"Ah, indeed. Too soon we grow old, eh? Yet, isn't it true that all of us will be what we will be?"
The man in the dark clothing looked at him oddly. "I mean, we must be what our age, sex, station, and acquaintances demand."
"Maybe...." A beer hall philosopher? Here? "What're you driving at?" He shivered in a gust.
"Nothing. Don't mind me. Everybody says I think too much, and say it. For a constable. You should get heavier clothing. Ander Sigurdson could outfit you. That all you wore coming north?"
The stranger nodded. This was a real fountain of questions. Nor was he as full of good-to-see-you as the others.
"Let's get you up to the alehouse, then. You're cold. You'll want something warming. A bite, too, by the look of you." He danced lightly as a sled whipped past.
The stranger noted his deftness. This would be a dangerous man. He was strong and quick.
"Name's Bors Olagson. Constable hereabouts. Boring job, what with nothing ever happening."
"I took you for a smith." The stranger refused the bait. "Really? Only hammer I ever swung was a war hammer, back in my younger days. Reeved out of Tonderhofn a few summers, back when. That's why they picked me for this job. But it's just a hobby, really. Don't even pay. My true profession is innkeeper. I own the alehouse. Bought with my share of the plunder."
They passed several houses and shops before he probed again. "And who would you be?"
"Rasher. Elfis Rasher. Factor for Darnalin, of the Bedelian League. Our syndics are considering increasing profits by bypassing the Iwa Skolovdans in the fur trade. I've begun to doubt our chances. I didn't prepare well. As you noticed by my outfit."
"And you came alone? Without so much as a pack?" "No. I survived. The Kratchnodians and rest of Trolledyngja aren't as friendly as Hammerfest."
"Indeed. Though it was worse before the Old House was restored. Here we are." He shoved a tall, heavy door. "Guro. A big stein for a new guest. The kids just knocked him into a snowbank." He grinned. "Yeah. Those were my brats."
I I I
The stranger surveyed the tavern. It was all warm browns, as homey and friendly within as the Hammerfesters were outside. He sidled to the fire.
Bors brought steins. "Well, Rasher, I admire you. I do. You're one of the survivors. Weren't always a merchant, were you?"
The questions were becoming irksome. "My home is Hellin Daimiel. I saw the El Murid wars. And I'm no countinghouse clerk. I'm a caravaneer."
"Thought so. Man of action. I miss it sometimes, till I remember drifting in a rammed dragonship with my guts hanging out on the oar bench...."
The stranger tried shifting the subject. "I was told Hammerfest was a critical fur town. That I might find men here who would be interested in making a better deal than the Iwa Skolovdans offer."
"Possibly. Those people are a gang of misers. I don't like it when they stay here. They fill the rooms and don't spend a groschen."
"When do they arrive?"
"You're ahead, if that's your idea. They're too soft to try the passes before summer. They'll be a month or two yet. But, you see, they'll bring trade goods. You've apparently lost yours."
"No real problem. A fast rider could correct that-if I find somebody interested. I'm the only foreigner in town now, then?"
The man's eyes narrowed. His mouth tightened. He wasn't much for hiding his thoughts. "Yes."
The stranger wondered why he lied. Was his man here? The trick would be to find him without bringing the town down on his head.
The best course would be to pursue his cover implacably, ignoring his urgency.
It had waited a year. It could wait a day or two more.
"Who should I see? If I can arrange something, I could get the goods through ahead of the Iwa Skolovdans. We've headquar-tered our operation at our warehouses in Itaskia...."
"You should get the frost out of your fingers first."
"I suppose. But I've lost my men and my goods. I have to recoup fast. The old boys who stay at home to tote up the profits and losses take the losses out of my pocket and put the profits in theirs."
"Oho! This's a speculative venture, then."
The stranger nodded, a quiet little smile crossing his lips.
"Gentlemen adventurers, perhaps? With the Bedelian League providing office space and letters of introduction, and you putting up the money and men?"
"Half right. I'm a League man. Sent to lead. I was supposed to get a percentage. Still can. If I find the right people, and make it back to Itaskia."
"You southerners. Hurry, hurry."
The stranger drew a coin from inside his cloak, then returned it. He searched by touch, found one which told no tales. It was an Itaskian half-crown, support for his story. "I don't know how long I'll stay. This should keep me a week."
"Six pence Itaskian, per day."
The stranger smiled to himself. He had the better of the man for the moment.
Bors' wife brought ale and roast pork as they agreed on four pence daily. Pork! It was a difficult moment. But the stranger was accustomed to alien ways. He stifled his reaction.
"While you're making your rounds, could you ask that Ander to stop over?"
"His shop is just up the street."
"I'm not going out till I have to. I've had a couple months of snow and wind."
"It's a warm spring day."
"Well, all right then. But warm is a matter of opinion."
"I'll walk you up after you're settled."
"I'll need some other things, too. I'll be a boon to Hammerfest's economy."
"Uhm." The thought had occurred to Bors, apparently.
In the tailor's shop the stranger asked a few cautious questions. He had guessed right. No one would tell him a thing. This would take cunning.
Returning to the inn, alone because Bors was making his rounds, he had another sled encounter. He didn't see this one.
Its rider was a boy of six, scared silly that he had hurt the stranger. The dark man calmed him just enough to suit his purpose.
Then he asked, "Where is the other stranger? The one who stayed the winter."
"The man with black eyes? The man who can't talk?" The
Trolledyngjan idiom meant a man who couldn't speak the language. "In the tower." He pointed.
The dark man stared uphill. The castle was primitive. It had a low curtain wall and what looked like a shell keep piled on granite bedrock. One step better than the moat and bailey. "Thank you, son." "You won't tell?" "I won't if you won't."
He continued staring uphill. A man who walked like Bors was coming down. He smiled his little smile.
He was in the common room, drinking hot wine, when the constable returned. "All peaceful?" he asked.
"Nothing changes," Bors replied. "Last trouble we had was two years ago. Itaskian got into it with a fellow from Dvar. Over a girl. Settled it before it came to blows." "Good. Good. I'll feel safe in my bed, then." "Peace is what we sell here, sir. Don't you know? Every man in Hammerfest is pledged to die fighting if trouble comes from outside. We need peace. Where else, in this land, can you find shops like ours? The outback people won't even plant crops, let alone work with their hands. Except to make trinkets they bury with their dead, to placate the Old Gods. Silly. If the New Gods can't get a man's shade safely to the heroes' hall, then they can't be much."
"I don't know much about religion." "Most folks here don't. They give to the priests mainly so they'll stay away. By the way. I talked to a couple fur-dealers. They're interested. In talking. They'll be round tomorrow."
The stranger moved to the fire. "Good. Then I shouldn't have to stay long."
"Oh, I think your stay will be short. They're eager, I'd say." There was something in his tone.... The stranger turned.
His cloak was back. Bors hadn't seen him open it. But he saw the worn, plain black sword hilt and the cold dark eyes and cruel nose. That wicked little smile played across the man's lips. '"Thank you. You're most kind, going out of your way. I'll retire now. My first chance at a warm bed for weeks." "I understand. I understand."
As the stranger climbed the stairs he caught the flicker of uncertainty crossing the big man's face.
He arranged a spell for his door, then went to bed.
They came earlier than he expected, though he hadn't been sure they would come at all. The ward spell warned him. He rose sinuously, hefted his weapon, concealed himself.
There were three of them. He recognized Bors' hulking shape immediately. One of the others was shorter and thinner than the man he sought.
He took Bors with a vicious throat swing, then gutted the short man, shoving a rag into his mouth before he could scream.
The third man didn't react in time to do anything. A sword tip rested at his adam's apple the instant it took the stranger to decide he wasn't the man. Then he died.
The stranger shrugged. He would have to visit the castle after all.
But first he lighted his lamp and studied the dead men.
He found nothing unusual.
Why would they commit murder for no more excuse than he had given?
He dressed in his new winter boots and coat, donned his greatcloak, sheathed his freshly cleaned sword.
Bors' wife waited in the common room.
The stranger's dark eyes met hers. There was no pity in his. "I'll be leaving early. I have a refund coming."
Terror restructured her face. She counted coins with fingers too shaky to keep hold.
The stranger pushed back two. "Too much." His voice was without emotion. But he couldn't resist a dramatic touch. He fished a coin from his purse. "To cover the costs of damage done," he said with a hint of sarcasm.
The woman stared at the coin as he slipped out the door. On one side a crown had been struck. On the reverse there were words in writing she didn't recognize.
Once the door slammed she flew upstairs, tears streaming.
They had been laid out neatly, side by side. On each forehead, still smoking, was a tiny crown-brand.
She didn't know what it meant, but there were others in Hammerfest who had paid attention to news from the south. She would learn soon enough.
She and Bors had entertained a royal guest.