The one thing Skári would say about the trip from the inn is that it was not the most comfortable way to travel. After leaving his boss, Gunnhildr, in a state of utter, furious speechlessness, Ingrid and her fellow barbarian sisters had Skári pack his bags and lead him out to where their horses and cart lay in wait for them. The horses themselves were bigger than the barbarians, and that was saying something. Their coats were of either beautiful, deep black or warm, chestnut brown, and their hooves were draped with shaggy hair, matching their shaken manes. These beasts were so intimidating to Skári, who had worked only with travel ponies and work mules, asked politely if he could ride in their cart of things rather than on the back of one of their horses. This proved to not be a very smart endeavor.
The cart that Skári rode in was small, barely five by five feet in area, and packed with things like furs, barrels and crates of the gods only knew what. So there wasn't much room to speak of for Skári. Since he was so insistent, however, the young maindweller was determined to make due, and thus squeezed himself between a couple of barrels. The road they traveled was so rocky that every move jolted him back and forth, making his body hit either the side railing or the wooden containers with painful "thwacks!" Finally, when the troupe had stopped to eat, the pain far outweighed Skári's fear, and he opted to ride in front of Ingrid for the rest of the journey.
"So where are we going?" he finally asked. For some reason, he forgot to inquire that morning. Probably because he didn't much care.
Ingrid, steering her horse from behind, smiled at the question. "It's a place called Kryss. It's the crossroads for many travelers and merchants on their way to lower lands. And it's where we get a good amount of business." That's when yet another thought came to mind. That bag of money Ingrid so effortlessly gave up for his sake. Someone to let go of that much at the drop of a hat must have plenty to spare. And so, though he feared the answer, he asked:
"What business do you and your sisters get?" In the back of his head, he expected Ingrid to say something along the lines of bounty hunters.
"Fur and ale trade," was the simple response. Skári almost didn't believe it. But he kept a blank face. "From time to time, the sisters and I shall make a pretty penny off gambling games. Have ye ever rolled dice for coin, lad?" Skári admittedly had not, though he'd heard horror stories from the over conservative villagers about how only evil creatures rely on chance and cheating instead of hard work for money. But, as he figured, there'd be a lot he'd learn on this little adventure than was taught to him at home.
"I suppose it pays well," Skári said, mind still on the sack of money that was given so freely.
Ingrid laughed at that. "Depending on our employer, aye." Her eyes then twinkled as she looked ahead. "We be close..."
The band of barbarians began to ascend up a hill slope, the giant hooves below them clopping loudly against the frozen ground and muddy snow. Skári felt the wind slap his cheeks and he pulled his cloak up to them to protect his face. Thankfully, the big outline of Ingrid was enough to break most of the wind before it got to him. When the little band of women made it to the top of the hillside, Skári could see the shimmering beginnings of a mountain village, nestled snugly in the crevice between the peeks behind it. The villagers moved as little dots among lumps of wood and rod iron, like ants amongst rocks. A sort of thrill hit him as he watched smoke billow up towards the clear blue sky, his ear catching the faintest sounds of singing and laughter. Before he could get too lost in the sight of Kryss, he felt Ingrid's big hand lay atop his shoulder.
"Before we go further, be warned. There be two rules ye must abide by. Firstly, keep close to me or the sisters. Kryss is bigger than she appears. It would do a man wrong for him to get lost in it. Especially at night. Secondly, trust no one that we do not. Watch, observe, and be ever mindful. Do I have your word, Skári?"
Stay close and be wary of strangers. That didn't seem to hard. He flashed Ingrid a bright, joyful smile, his hands gripping the bridle of her horse. "You do. I'll be by you every second."
That pleased her, and Ingrid nodded. "Very good. Now! Onward, sisters!" With a clutter of horse hooves, the barbarians continued down the other side of the mountain and along the winding road until coming upon the villa of Kryss. The closer they got, the more and more Skári realized that Ingrid was right. Kryss was far larger than it appeared at a distance. The trees around them thinned, revealing the simple circumference of the town. Or... rather, it might have been a city. The more he looked, the more and more he saw homes pop from nowhere. Just how many people lived in such a place? And how many people visited? Upon closer inspection, Skári realized that the buildings he saw were not in fact homes, but places of business. Inns and taverns and baker shops and iron smiths. All filled with every race and every size and every color of man imaginable. The caws of strange animals on leashes, both for sale and lead around by their masters, was muted only by the sound of a well played fiddle, held by one of the many mistrals that littered the town square. Skári could smell baked bread that was so fresh and so vibrant his mouth began to water. In one glance, he saw more in Kryss than he could ever hope to imagine back home. And they hadn't even entered the town yet.
The women funneled single file into the wide baring streets. As their giant beasts slowly migrated through the crowds, not many cast a look their way. This was probably not a very unusual sight to the likes of Kryss. Skári, on the other hand, wished more than anything to have more than two eyes. He wanted to see everything! The blacksmith, whose very furnace was hot enough for Skári to feel its heat. The tailor, with robes and cloaks made of finer material than Skári could even hope to touch. Even the simple folk along the street, who were all just as interesting as the merchants. Skári felt like he was entering a dream land. Troll children ran up and down the sleet ridden cobble stone, their tails flickering happily with each game they played. A group of elves, with all their fine clothes and charm, were seen chatting with a jewelry trader as one of the women admired a beautiful silver necklace. It was only moments later that a blast of voices came from within a tavern, followed by a couple of drunken dwarf men with empty tankards in their fists, their arms slung around each other's shoulders. They nearly would have been trodden on, had the giant crossing their path not seen them before side-stepping the drunks and continuing on her way. Skári even saw a passionate argument between a small group of lygtemand and a couple of enraged nisses. It truly was a fantasy come true.
"Here we are." Ingrid's voice was like a shock back into reality. Skári barely noticed that the world had stopped moving as the women settled their horses outside a small shop. Hopping off with Ingrid, Skári offered to help carry some of the furs in with the others. He knew that Ingrid liked him well enough, but he wanted to give the others no excuse to have a problem with him. Walking inside the shop, the first thing that Skári noticed was how incredibly warm it was. A strange, blue flame sat in a large iron furnace behind the counter. The smell of leather was the second thing he noticed, which was rather hard to miss. The whole shop stank of it. All sorts of skins and leather clothing hung along the walls. Shoulder pads, tunics, gloves, coats, boots... Skári even caught his eye on a beautiful leather quiver. Instantly, he zoned in on it, his heart giving a little leap. It had been some time since he'd touched a bow. If only he could shoot with something so beautiful on his back...
"Ahh! My fair lady! So good to see you again!" A new voice tore his eyes away from the quiver to the counter. An tall, odd man stood there. His ears were pointed, like an elf's, but were a great deal thicker than most. His skin was a healthy, almost pink color, and his hair was as gold as his earrings. His clothes were a draped assortment of purples, almost as a dress-like robe, clipped together with beads and broaches. He raised a hand, which was decorated with a gold bangle, and gave Ingrid a wiggle of his fingers in greeting. "And how goes it for my most lovely maiden?"
Ingrid laughed freely, her hands pinned on either hip. "Fine, fine!" She reached out, and the two clasped arms in friendship and greeting. "We have more animals for ye, Koelheid." Taking a badger pelt from her shoulder, she let the shop keeper examine it with a keen eye.
"Mm..." A pleased smile curled around his feminine lips. "I can always count on you, Ingrid. Have them place the furs in a pile there..." His green eyes then went from the barbarian leader to Skári. "Well now... Is this a new pet, Ingrid? Naughty girl, I would have never expected this from you!" However, his chiding was all in good fun.
The woman didn't seem bothered. She put a hand on Skári's back, pulling him closer to the counter. "This be my own runaway. Skári. A maindweller from the north."
"Oh ho? It's rare to see a lone maindweller so far from home... A runaway say you?"
"Aye. Found him working a tavern miles back."
Skári felt his nervousness rising as the merchant scanned him with those mysterious eyes of his. "Well... he certainly is a fine specimen." He put a hand on his chest and bowed his head. "I am Koelheid Laufeyson. A pleasure to meet you."
"Koelheid is a jotunn," Ingrid explained. "Most of them live higher in the mountains, but Koelheid found more profit here in Kryss."
A jotunn? Skári's brows rose high on his forehead as he stared at Koelheid. This wasn't right... "You are... a frost giant?" His words nearly spoke themselves. This got a laugh from all who heard, making Skári's face glow with embarrassment. But at least he was not offended.
Koelheid turned to Ingrid, his eyes bright with cheer. "A funny little thing, isn't he? No doubt his head is filled with all sorts of maindweller myth." Koelheid leaned against the counter, his arms folded over on each other. "I, my darling boy, am nothing of the sort. If you cannot tell." His hand opened, as if to present himself, as his cheeks dimpled in amusement. "But I'm flattered that you should think me so powerful." After another good laugh at Skári's expense, Ingrid was paid for her furs, and then they headed back out to their horses. Next was to sell the ale, which was kept in the barrels Skári was unfortunate enough to encounter that morning. His side still smarted.
Selling off the kegs was a quicker, and far less embarrassing venture than the furs, and soon, the group found themselves eating and drinking at a tavern. Skári would admit, it was nice to be served rather than doing the serving. But as they waited for their drinks, Skári realized yet another fact.
"I've little money," he said to Ingrid with sad eyes. Gunnhildr still refused to pay him his due wages in exchange for the rabbit he cooked, and so all he had to go on were the tips he'd earned the day prior. "How expensive is the food?" By his last count, he had a little under five gold pieces and twenty silver. That was barely enough for two drinks and hot meat. But Ingrid settled his worry with a pat on the thigh.
"Calm yourself. Ye travel with us, ye can feast with us. Besides..." She grinned. "There should be a small price for your stomach, as small as it is." Skári couldn't help his weak smile. It was true. Being raised in a villa where food could be scarce, one learned to live off small portions. Skári probably could eat about 1/5th what the others could. In a way, however, it was a comforting fact; the barbarians would not complain that he was too expensive to feed.
As the day turned to night, food and drink were brought to the table. The women drank and ate like they had in the tavern Skári had been saved from. Deeply and without apology. Skári was given a plate of pheasant and horn of meed for himself. Even though it was smaller than the others' meals, it was more than enough to fill his rumbling stomach. The meed, he soon found out, was stronger here than it had been in his own village. Much stronger, and sweetened with honey and apple spice to the point where he barely tasted the alcohol. Thankfully, he stopped himself before drinking to the point of being a fool, though it left him with a light feeling in his head. The dinner continued, and Skári felt himself growing bored with the table. He tried more than once to get Ingrid's attention, but a few other friends of hers had entered the tavern and struck up a loud conversation. This left Skári with nothing to do but sit awkwardly and wait for it to be finished.
That is, until he heard the hypnotizing song of a fiddle. Turning, his eyes followed the lively tune outside, where he saw a small band of minstrels play for the crowd. Skári grew curious and glanced at Ingrid. She was still wrapped up in her conversation. Again, Skári turned to the musicians. What could it hurt? They were just outside the door. Ingrid could probably see him while sitting down. So, not wanting to interrupt her chat, Skári slipped away from the table and headed outside. His face lit up.
The fiddle player was instantly found, a nix by the look of it (clothed, thankfully), along with a troll banging a little rounded drum to keep with the beat. All the while, a beautiful young huldra girl danced, her bright red tail flapping this way and that with each sway of her hips. Skári was entranced and mystified. Probably far more than he would have had he been completely sober. But that didn't quite matter to him at the moment. All that did matter was the way the music captured his entire world. He could almost see the music as it flew from the fast strings of the fiddle. He even ended up getting pulled in by the huldra to be danced with. His feet lighter than air, and his mind clouded from drink, Skári happily obliged her, letting the girl spin this way and that, pulling Skári further and further into a trance.
When the song ended, Skári clapped the loudest of them all, and even gave them a handful of his tips to reward their show. They accepted the money gratefully, the huldra even giving Skári a little kiss on the cheek. Smiling happily, he turned and sauntered his way back into the tavern. Hopefully Ingrid would be finished talking by now. But when he stepped back inside, he saw something that caught him dead in his tracks, the smile leaving his face in a flash.
Ingrid and the others were nowhere to be found.