“Oh, I am sorry. I did not mean to frighten you. No, that was not my intention in the slightest.”
The blinding light vanished and the ability to see returned. What he saw, however, made him wonder if the sudden flaring of light hadn’t in some way damaged his vision. For there before him was a sight that he had a hard time reconciling with reality.
It was a man, or at least he might have believed it to be a man had the being before him been less translucent and not floated six inches above the floor. Dressed in bright blue pantaloons with a shirt to match, it boasted a handlebar mustache that extended a good five inches to either side before ending with an upward curl reminiscent of a pig’s tail. It wore a smile both friendly and inviting.
Holk gazed at the man with wary trepidation. “Who, or what, are you?”
“To answer your question in its entirety would assuredly take far longer than your frail existence has. Suffice it to say that I am me, just as you are you. Of course, if you are not you, that would still mean that I am me. Perhaps I should phrase that another way.”
There was little in the being’s demeanor to indicate hostile intention. Though Holk’s wariness subsided, it did not depart altogether.
“At this point in time, I would think to say that I am a provider of sorts. Yes, provider, that would be an ideal term. For you see, I provide items that humans such as yourself require. Do you require anything, human? I can supply nearly anything.”
This must be the Merchant Kiernan had mentioned in his journal. Holk continued to relax in its presence as the being’s rambling nature put him at further at ease. “Would you also be known as the Merchant?”
The being’s mustache quivered as it assumed a surprised expression. “Why, yes. I have been known to be addressed as such. Merchant, Provider, Shopkeeper, and many others, though I suppose each in their own way describes my function in this place and time. Call me what you will, just don’t call me late for dinner.” It paused moment as if expecting a reaction and appeared slightly disappointed that it hadn’t materialized.
“Was that funny? Another human that I had dealings with once claimed that when used at the right moment, that compilation of words would prove quite the side-splitter. But alas, I must have misunderstood. A human’s reaction to laughter stimuli is something that I have striven to understand and perfect, but I’m afraid my skill in this endeavor remains imperfect. You are a strange people.”
“So, you could provide something that I want?”
“Yes, absolutely.” Moving forward in its excitement, it accidentally floated into the table so its upper torso was effectively divided by the tabletop from its lower. Realizing what it had done, it backed off so to once again appear whole.
“Do you want a third eye? I can do that. Put it anywhere on your body you wish. One human opted to have one placed on the back of his hand so he could see around corners. Of course, he later complained that whenever he wiped the sweat from his brow, his eye would sting.”
Holk shook his head. “No. I do not need a third eye. But I could use a sword.”
Instantly, the table elongated to three times its former width and a score of weapons appeared upon its top.
Gazing at the array of blades, he refrained from touching them as he feared what the being might do should he try. In the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but recall how Kiernan had mentioned this being had a quota of souls in need of filling. The exercise of caution would be well advised.
The weapons ranged widely from a paring knife hardly bigger than his thumb, to that of a sword as large as himself that he could never hope to lift. Some were in excellent shape while others were rusted to the point where they would shatter during the first passage of arms.
“As you can see, I offer nothing but the best. I can also imbue any sword with any ability you desire.” Picking a curved saber off the table, the being held it aloft as it burst into flame. “A flaming sword could prove most beneficial. Or perhaps, one of the purest adamantine.” The flames vanished and the blade transformed into a shiny, black metal. “With this, nothing would stand in your way. It will cut through anything.”
And probably cost me my soul?
“What’s the price?”
“Price?” the being asked as the saber returned to its original form and appeared back upon the table. “Each has its own price. Nothing costs more than what you can give, I assure you. Everything is within your means.”
Looking skeptical, Holk returned his gaze to the weapons displayed before him. “Can I touch them without entering into a deal”
“Assuredly so. Touch them, wield them, why, even throw them against the wall if you so desire. I have been placed here to service those humans who were fortunate enough to find their way to my room.”
Picking up a longsword that appeared serviceable, Holk asked, “Your room?”
“So I have come to think of it. I’ve been within these walls a very long time. Humans come, humans go, yet I remain; but not for long. Soon, I shall be allowed to leave this place and find work elsewhere.”
“Why can’t you leave now?” Discovering that the sword lacked the proper balance, he returned it to the table and picked up another.
“Providers, uh, Merchants, such as myself have a quota they must realize before the terms of their service have been met.”
“And what do you need to fill your quota?”
“Why, human souls of course. I need but two more, then I can move on.”
“Well, you’ll just have to wait a little bit longer. You aren’t about to get mine.”
The being took on a sad expression. “So true . You humans are a tight-fisted bunch when it comes to your souls. It’s not like they are doing you any good as it is. Can you touch it? Does it feed you when you are hungry? Of course not! Yet each and every one of you hangs onto them as if your lives depended on them…which they don’t.”
Holk wasn’t convinced, but kept his thoughts to himself. Replacing the second longsword back on the table, he took up the third and final one that was close to the length and heft that he was used to.
After sighting down the length, he held it at arm’s length, then put it through several complex maneuvers. “The balance is just a touch off.”
“It is?” The being came around the table and peered closely at the sword. “How can you tell?”
“There is too much weight in the hilt.”
The sword suddenly felt…different.
“How is that?” the Merchant asked as it brought its attention to bear upon its human customer. “Better?”
Holk repeated the maneuvers he had tested it with a moment before, then nodded. “It’s perfect.”
Beaming, the being’s smile practically glowed with happiness. “Do you wish to acquire that sword?”
“Perhaps. What are you asking?” When the being gazed at him in a calculating manner, Holk quickly interjected, “I’m not giving you my soul.”
Waving away the statement, the Merchant shook his head. “That blade, perfect for your needs though it may be, would not require such a price.”
Remembering how Kiernan had written that many of the minor items available through the Merchant could be purchased with the small, red-capped mushrooms, he reached into his pouch and removed the ones he carried.
“Will these do as trade?”
Its eyes widened upon spying the red bounty. “Why, yes. I would be more than happy to trade that blade for those mushrooms.” Snatching them from his hand, the Merchant quickly gobbled them up.
“I take it you like them?”
“Oh, yes. They are an exquisite delicacy not found where I come from. To use a term you humans are fond of, they are worth their weight in gold’”
Holk grinned as he admired the blade he now possessed. But there was one slight problem. He didn’t have a scabbard. “How a bout a scabbard, too?”
One appeared on the table, a perfect match for what the blade.
“Do you have any more of those delectable mushrooms?”
He definitely didn’t relish the idea of holding the sword all the time. “How about another trade?”
The Merchant eyed him quizzically.
“I have an empty knife scabbard. How about we make an even swap? The knife’s scabbard, for the sword’s.”
“I don’t know.” Eyeing the empty scabbard belted around Holk’s waist, the Merchant didn’t look too enthused by the deal. “It’s not comparable in size or weight.” The being turned its gaze upon Holk. “But, seeing as this is our first meeting, and I wish for you to return to purchase further items, I will accept the terms.”
The knife scabbard vanished from around Holk’s waist only to be replaced by the sword’s. When Holk sheathed the blade, he found it to be a perfect fit. “Thank you.”
“Always glad to be of service. Would there be anything else you desire?”
“Actually, yes.” The being’s eyes lit up but Holk held up his hand. “Unfortunately, I have nothing further with which to trade.”
“Oh, that is not a problem, not a problem at all. Why, there have been many humans who found their way here with little more than the shirts upon their backs. By that I mean, they had nothing with which to trade, for they often had trousers, boots, undergarments, and so forth. By saying they had naught but the shirt upon their backs, I didn’t want you to think your fellow humans wandered around half naked with their, uh….” The Merchant then pointed to its nether region. “…exposed.”
“You do? Excellent.”
A moment of silence ensued. Holk finally asked, “You said it wasn’t a problem?”
“What wasn’t a problem?”
“That I had nothing with which to trade?”
“Oh! That’s right. There are always ways in which a human can be of service to one such as myself. Having to remain within this room until my quota has been filled allows for little opportunity to gather things that I may wish to possess.”
“Didn’t you just say you could provide me anything I wanted? Wouldn’t that mean there was very little you don’t have?”
The being shook its head. “I’m afraid you have developed an erroneous assumption. Perhaps due in part to my inability to accurately understand every subtle nuance of such primitive linguistics. The items I have to barter with are not mine. No, they are most definitely not mine. They have been made available to me, but I do not own them, cannot take them with me when I leave.”
“So, you want me to get something for you?”
Shrugging, the Merchant asked, “First, what is it you want? Perhaps a dagger to go with your new sword? Or a whetstone? Swords don’t sharpen themselves you know.”
Holk produced the pair of cloth-wrapped mirrors. “I would be interested in a leather pouch that would easily carry these.” Unwrapping them, he held for the two travel mirrors.
The Merchant was quite surprised to see them. “Where did you get those?”
The swords atop the table vanished as the tabletop returned to its original size. A leather pouch, divided into eight thin pouches, each large enough to hold one mirror, appeared upon the table. “Would this do?”
Holk picked it up and looked it over. Taking one of the mirrors, he saw how it slid easily within, yet wouldn’t come out on its own. “Yes. What do I have to do to get it?”
“Nothing much, really. Merely acquire an item that was lost to me. Or should I say, stolen by a tricky human. Alas, the human no longer survives and the object rests where the thief met his end. All you need do is to go and retrieve it for me. Bring it back here, and this is yours.”
“What if I enter into the agreement, but am unable to acquire the object you want?”
“Why, then you are out nothing, other than the ability to gain this wonderful pouch for your mirrors.”
“You mean, once I make a deal for an item, another deal for the same item cannot be agreed upon?”
“Oh, you are a most perceptive human. Yes. Once you agree to the terms, those terms must be met in order to acquire the item and no other terms are allowed to be substituted.”
“But, I could still get other items?”
Nodding, the Merchant said, “Absolutely. I am not as strict as some Providers. Loose, that’s me. Or would flexible be a better term? Your language has too many different words with the same meaning, or similar meanings. Either way, I am much better to deal with.”
Holk was surprised at the possibility of others. “How many are there like you in this place?”
“None. I am as unique to these environs as, well, actually, there is nothing more uniquer than myself to be found here.”
“Very well. I agree to your terms.”
“You do? Excellent, excellent.”
“I don’t suppose you can tell me where it is?”
The Merchant looked surprised as if the thought hadn’t even occurred to him. “Do you need…now what is the word…a hint?”
“At least point me in the right direction.”
Nodding, the being said, “You may be correct in that to find the item in question would prove difficult in the extreme without the knowledge as to where it is.” Turning about to face the wall, the Merchant raised its hands. An image appeared upon the wall, a tree-filled valley bordered by hills.
Holk immediately recognized it as the place wherein the things resided. “In there?”
“Yes. But more precisely…” the image focused upon an area near the center around a series of ruins. “…here.”
A building, barely perceptible through the canopy of trees, alternately flashed red and orange. What he could see of it showed the structure to be in an advanced state of collapse.
“You will find the item within.” Turning back toward Holk, the being smiled. “Easy. Simply go there, retrieve it, and return.”
Holk met the smile with a visage of stone. He definitely didn’t wish to return to that forest. While it was true , the carrier for the mirrors would prove beneficial, was acquiring it worth the risk? There was also the consideration of what he may yet have to do before making his way from this place. Should he encounter the Ti-Ocks, battle would ensue. He dared not risk having the mirrors remain loose. They afforded him a much needed escape route that he would be remiss to put in jeopardy. In the heat of battle, they could slip out of his shirt, be inadvertently left behind, or broken. He finally came to the conclusion that the carrier was in fact worth the risk.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me what those things are that inhabit the forest?”
“Things? What sort of things are you speaking of? There are many things within the forest. Is it an animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“Uh, not sure entirely. Probably animal.” He then described the leathery, tapestry-like creature.
“Oh, yes. I know what you are talking about.”
Holk waited for further explanation, but none were forthcoming. “Well,” he said after a few moments, “what are they?”
“Do you expect me to give you something for free? Out of the goodness of my heart?” The being chuckled. “Of course, since I don’t have an actual heart as you know it, that phrase may be somewhat misleading. But I’m sure that if you take it in the spirit that it was intended, you will understand my meaning. What do you have to barter for the answer?”
“Well, yes. I am, after all, set here to trade, wheel and deal you might say. Our discussion thus far has been one of minor inconsequences, a laying out of the rules so to speak. I am not allowed to simply give anything away, be it information or material items, at least not anything of any worth. And the information of which you inquired would be, I’m afraid, considered as having worth.”
Holk shook his head. “Could you at least tell me when it would be best to make the attempt? Night or day?”
The Merchant gazed at him as if considering the question for several moments. “I think telling you that would be stretching the rules a bit farther than I am allowed.” When Holk frowned, the being added, “However, if we should enter into an agreement that you would, say, bring three of those delectable red-capped mushrooms when next you stopped by for a visit, I think the broadest sense of my operating guidelines would be satisfied.”
“Three of the mushrooms?”
The being nodded.
Smiling, the Merchant clapped its hands. “Excellent. Those things as you call them are most active during the nocturnal hours.”
About to reply, Holk noticed the Merchant’s eyes flicked momentarily toward the room behind him. Turning around quickly, he caught sight of a light for only a split-second before it vanished.
“What was that?”
“You really must be more specific. ‘That’ is a rather vague word and could be referring to almost anything.”
Retuning his gaze to the being before him, Holk pointed to where the light had been. “There. I saw a light.”
“Oh, that. Yes, that was a light, I believe it came from a sunstone.”
The being nodded. “A very rare type of mineral, sunstones have the ability, when struck, of emitting light that will last for several hours.”
“But who was holding it?”
“Ah, that I cannot say. Bound by a previous agreement.”
“Was it Streyan?”
“Again, I can’t say.”
I bet it was. Had it been a Ti-Ock, it would have attacked. Or, could there yet be others entrapped as was he? That was a definite possibility.
“Do you have a sunstone for trade?”
A dozen lumps of rock, ranging from a pebbled to the size of Holk’s head, appeared on the table before him. Veins of bright scarlet ran through the black, coal-like rock. He selected one that would fit comfortably in the palm of his hand. “How about a dozen of the red-capped mushrooms for this?”
“Twelve? Or are you referring to a baker’s dozen, which of course everyone knows would in truth make the count thirteen?”
“That would be satisfactory.”
Holk nodded, then turned back toward where he had seen the light.
“Are you leaving?”
Again, Holk nodded. When he glanced back to the being, it was gone. “But I’ll be back.”
Leaving the tableside, Holk walked over to where he had seen the light. Not finding any evidence of another’s presence, he took out the mirror lacking the red dot and returned to the Prison Room.