Merchant King

7 – Elves

Marian

They revealed themselves in the flashing light of the storm. They were not what one might expect when picturing elves. 

Green and brown clothing was ragged and bore stains of dirt and grass. Weapons were simply made and there was no metal. Instead of swords, they wielded spears with stone heads. A couple had bows.

Most telling and worrisome of all, the rain trickled down gaunt features: hollow cheeks and sunken eyes, bony arms and legs. Grayish skin was pallid and unhealthy.

“Undead!” Marian screamed, fear running through her. She flung the side cover of the wagon open and frantically began to cast magic. 

The elves rushed the wagon.

Hadiin leapt to his feet and imperiously threw his hand up at the charging group, his voice ringing out, “Stop!” 

There was some kind of power in his voice; even Marian felt herself holding back from unleashing her spell.

She and the elves looked up at him, somewhat stunned.

“They’re not undead,” Hadiin softly said to Marian, his voice difficult to hear over the weather. 

Marian took another look. Now that they were closer and the initial shock had worn off, she saw the truth. They were not undead, merely starving. And their gray skin… “Moon elves?” she muttered.

An elf in the lead, spear aimed at her chest, narrowed his eyes at her. 

She triggered her fan of flames spell. Orange fire washed through the air over the heads of the elves, driving them back a step.

They growled in anger and readied to attack again.

“Hold!” Hadiin told them. “There’s no reason to fight!”

Once more, something in his voice checked them all.

The leader spat at Hadiin’s feet. “You are human. It’s reason enough.”

“OK, that’s just outright discrimination. Didn’t your parents teach you better?”

“My parents are dead! Killed — murdered — by your kind!” He rattled the stone head of his spear in the man’s direction.

Hadiin held his hands up in defence. “I don’t see what that has to do with us. We certainly didn’t do it.”

There was a deep anger, a hatred in the elf’s eyes. “You kind is guilty. Humans have been slaughtering us for over two hundred years. You expand your cities, build towns, cut down the forests, till every open spot of land. And you send your bloodthirsty adventurers against us, time and time again, murdering us all and cutting off our ears as trophies.”

Hadiin looked disgusted. “Ew. Really?” He turned to Marian with a frown. “People do this? Seriously?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. I think I heard someone talking about how the adventurer’s guild in the city does have some quests against elves though.”

“That’s deplorable!” Hadiin scowled. “Elves are noble. Kind. Wise. And elf girls are hot.”

A female elf with a bow sidled forward, pointing her drawn arrow towards him. Her thin clothing clung to her too-thin body. “We’ve suffered enough at the hands of your rapist adventurers!”

Hadiin looked at her. “Hey. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m simply appreciative of your refined features and gracefulness. And that lovely skin. Is it so wrong to see beauty in someone who looks a little different from oneself?”

She sneered. “Humans look like overgrown maggots stuffed into clothing.”

Hadiin opened his mouth to reply, then shrugged, apologetic. “Yes, some do. Obesity has become a problem, I admit. It’s all-too common. But we, as a society, are working on it. Some of us, anyway.”

Marian found her voice. “Why do you look like you’re starving?” she asked the leader.

His head whipped around in her direction. “Because we are! Because you humans have taken all of our food! You hunt the animals to extinction, take all the fish, rip every herb and wild vegetable you find out of the ground so that it can’t spread. And where we might cultivate the soil, you storm in with your knights and mages and take the land, fertilizing it with our blood and corpses.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ok… That’s dramatic.”

He bared his teeth at her. 

She raised her hands at him, flames dancing between her fingers. “Want to see what burning alive feels like? I just did it to someone yesterday. Smelled super disgusting. But I’ll do it again.”

Hadiin waved his hands in a downward motion. “Come now! Good elves, neither I, nor Marian here,” he gestured at her, “bear you any ill will. Of course we don’t! Neither side has drawn blood yet, so why don’t we just calm down?”

Another male elf, with feathers braided into his limp, wet hair, nodded towards the wagon. “We’re here to take everything you carry. Hand it over to us, and maybe we’ll let you live.”

Hadiin tilted his head in thought. “You have a use for cryo slime too?”

The elf looked confused. “Slime? What?”

“Oh! You probably want the deer jerky. That makes more sense.” He studied the elven bandits before him. “Tell you what, I’ll trade you for it.”

The leader looked appalled. “Trade? With you?”

“Yes. Trade,” Hadiin said matter-of-factly. “Exchange. I give you the jerky, you give me something in return.”

“You’d deal with us after we’ve just killed one of your own kind, a human?” The leader pointed to the corpse still dangling from the nearby tree branch. “You think we could trust someone who would think so little of their own as to betray them?”

Hadiin shook his head. “Oh, I’m not racial. Or specisial? Is that a word? Speciesist? Politically correct vocabulary is so confusing. Whatever. What I mean is that I don’t give a damn about a person’s so-called kind. I don’t care about their skin colour, their ear shape, their culture, or creed. Frankly, it’s all superficial, isn’t it? I mean, it’s really no different than wearing different clothes. Except it’s harder to take off and change or to put in the wash, I suppose.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Friendship! That’s all I care about. Whether you’re elf or dwarf or giant ant, I don’t care. If we’re friends, that’s all that matters. And if we can’t be friends, then if we can at least cooperate in a civil and mutually profitable manner, whereby both of us happily benefit from association with the other, then what’s the problem? Why should we focus so much on grouping ourselves by physical characteristics or giving ourselves these silly labels of one kind or another when what really matters is whether we can help each other? Aren’t values a far more important part of one’s identity than skin colour or who you have sex with or what your grandparents did to someone else’s grandparents before you were born? Surely cooperation is more valuable, is it not? Surely a person’s values are more important than the shell we wear?”

The female archer looked askance at him. “So you don’t care that we killed a human?”

He hesitated. “Well, I wouldn’t say it speaks highly of you. Unless the human personally did you wrong. I mean, let’s face it, how much would you trust another elf that went around murdering people willy-nilly just for fun or because they got angry, hmm? But as far as that individual goes, I did not know him, so I have no particular regret that he’s dead other than in a general sense that indiscriminate killing is wrong and that it’s a shame that someone had to lose their life for no good reason.”

“And if we kill her?” The leader pointed at Marian.

Hadiin’s eyes turned flat. “Marian is a friend. So I’d burn your forest down and turn everyone in it to ash.”

Marian looked at him in surprise. He’d really do that? She…hadn’t expected him to feel so strongly. 

Hadiin’s smile reappeared. “Enough murder for today. It’s raining, it’s cold, and we all have better places to be, yes? So, I propose a trade. I’ve got enough deer jerky in the wagon that it would take all of you to carry it off.” He paused, thoughtful, then resumed. “I’ll give it you now, all of it. And in a week’s time, I’ll return. You can give me something in exchange for it then. I mean, obviously you don’t look like you’re carrying anything valuable with you at the moment. Unless you have coin hidden somewhere?”

The man with feathers eyed the wagon with desperation and snarled. “Trade? We’ll just take what we want.” He stepped forward, wringing the spear in his thin hands. “You can’t stop us!”

“Yeah,” Marian said, not really afraid of the stick elves now that she’d seen them up close, “you can try. But again, probably gonna burn you all to a fiery death.” She felt kind of sorry for the group. At first, they’d seemed scary. But the longer they’d spoken, the elves now seemed kind of pathetic. It was sad. 

“What if we take your food now,” the leader said, “and just run off with it? Why would we come back or pay you anything?”

“Actually,” Hadiin snapped his fingers with a smile, “even better. I’ll bring another wagonload with me, this time full to the brim with nothing but foodstuffs or whatever you like as well. And we’ll trade for that, too. And if you don’t have coin to pay with, that’s ok. Perhaps you have some fine, elven crafts to offer? Or raw materials, like hides or metal ore?”

“Liar!” the elven bow-woman shouted. Her eyes blazed. “You’ll come back with adventurers and slaughter us all. We’ll not fall for your trap!”

Hadiin sighed. “No, really. I’m being quite honest here. I’m not an adventurer, I’m a merchant. My goal is to make money. To help others along the way, if I can. Killing you all would not be profitable. No matter how much the misguided adventurer’s guild might pay for your ears, it certainly wouldn’t be worth as much as you and I building a healthy, long-term relationship, would it? From the look of you, and I don’t mean to be rude, but you do seem to be in rather desperate straights. You need resources, yes? Food? Supplies? I can help. And if you can provide something in return, we can both be happy with the exchange. Perhaps we can continue to exchange, for months or even years to come. That sounds better than killing, yes?”

The leader hesitated. For a few moments, the only sound was the rain and the wind in the trees branches above. Then lightning and thunder crashed quite close by, startling them back into action.

Feather-hair shouted, “We can’t trust him!”

Others voiced agreement. Though the woman with the bow seemed a touch conflicted. She still had her arrow aimed at Hadiin though. 

Hadiin spoke calmly. “I shall give you the jerky now, without a fight. No one has to get hurt. No one will be left with horrible, disfiguring burns thanks to Marian’s fire spells. Take it and eat it and enjoy. And in one week’s time, I’ll return along this same road. Just Marian and I, no adventurers. And we’ll trade.”

The leader slowly lowered his spear. He eyed Hadiin coldly, but spoke. “We’ll take all the food you have.”

Feather-hair looked ready to tear someone’s head off. “No! We should attack—!”

The leader held his hand up. “We will take the food. And no one risks their life today.”

The other elves grumbled. But most lowered their weapons. Except the bow-woman. She aimed her weapon at Marian while the other elves came around to the back of the wagon to fetch the food. 

Marian, for her part, kept her gaze on the bow woman, spell at the ready. 

After a few minutes, arms loaded with all the deer jerky they could carry, the elves backed away, then started streaming into the dark forest. Feather-hair glared at them with murderous eyes before he vanished into the shadows. 

The leader threw a suspicious look Marian and Hadiin. “We make no promises. Perhaps next time we’ll show up with more warriors and take it all. Be grateful we’ve left you with your lives.”

OK, Marian had had enough of the lame posturing. She sent fire over his head, forcing him to duck or be scorched. “Be grateful for our generosity and offer of friendship, idiot. And that I didn’t torch you.”

The leader glared at her, then silently strode off. 

After they were all gone, Hadiin sat down in his seat. He exhaled a big breath. “Well, that was interesting.” Despite his earlier confidence, he seemed a bit shaken. Then he brightened. “Look at that. A whole new revenue stream just fell into our laps.” He grinned at her. “Lucky!” Then he turned back and gathered up the reins. 

Marian sat back in the now less-full wagon. She couldn’t be sure, but she suspected that the encounter with the elves wasn’t supposed to go like this. Either you were supposed to kill the elves, or run and escape from them. But talking to them, and even setting up a future trade deal? That didn’t seem like it would have been written into the game. Or maybe it was, but it was just a rare option. After all, hardly anyone played non-fighter classes, right? 

She looked at Hadiin’s scrawny back, appraising him. Perhaps he’d been able to talk to them because of his maxed-out Charisma. Maybe there was more to it than just higher quest rewards. If he could stop hostile people from attacking like that and even turn them to his own will… That was powerful stuff indeed. 

And power turned her on. Along with money. 

She’d only intended to stick around with him a short while to see if she could get some easy coin out of hanging around with him and doing some quests together. It’s not as if he was very attractive, perhaps average at best. She was unsure of whether she liked that curly moustache or not. And he didn’t seem overly brave or cool. He was no death knight in bloody armor or sexy rogue, someone with a badass body and physical power. 

But he might have a different kind of power. And he just might end up making a lot of money. And that was very sexy, too. Maybe she wouldn’t ditch him after reaching the next town and getting paid. Maybe she’d stick with him a while longer. See how things played out.

“Hey, Hadiin,” she called to him.

He looked over his shoulder. “Hmm?”

“What’s your end game?”

“End game?”

“Yeah. Like, what are you going to accomplish as a merchant? What are your goals?”

“Ah, easy enough. I’m going to make a truly stupid amount of money.” He grinned. “And then I’m going to buy the crown.”

That floored her. She blinked and then leaned forward. “The crown?”

“Yes. I’m going to do something nobody else has ever done. Because it probably can’t be done as a damage class. But I’m a merchant and I can do things that others can’t. I’m going to become king. Well, first I’ll have to buy myself noble titles. Work my way up the more money I make.”

“King.” She slumped back. It was crazy. Silly. Impossible. And yet, he seemed so sure of it when he spoke of such a lofty dream. As if it was only a matter of time before he did it. How could he be so sure of himself?

She looked back the way they’d come, at the spot they’d met the elves and thought about how he’d turned that encounter into something unexpected. She raised her brows. Could he actually become a king here? Was such a thing possible?

Maybe, for a merchant, for him, it would be. 

A greedy smile spread over her lips and a telling tingle appeared in her nether regions. She pictured herself in a crown by his side, a princess or a queen, bathing in gold coins and champagne. She would have servants or slaves. She’d pick what she wanted from a feast for every meal. And other women were claw their own eyes out in envy. 

Marian would be a true dragon, surrounded by treasure. 

Yes, she’d stick around for a while. See just what this guy could do. If she could get filthy rich by being in his party, richer than she could from crawling around in dirty dungeons for treasure…

They exited the forest and once more the wind came down on them. Marian closed the walls of the wagon and huddled in the shelter while Hadiin sat outside in the downpour alone. 

Leaning against a relatively soft stack of leather, she was just about to nod off when she heard snapping, growling, snarling, and then a roar from somewhere outside. 

Monster attack!

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