The wooden gates of the city, thick and warped with years of service, swung inward with a hint of effort. Their heavy chains slid back into the walls of the entrance, locked in place by the gears and levers in rooms on either side of the city gate. Guards in the red and yellow livery of the surrounding province hurried to the openings in the wall on either side, desperate to avoid being caught up in the sea of brown and green that swept in through the gate. Those guardsmen manning the parapets watched in amusement as old ladies jostled for position amongst the flood of people coming to the capital for market day.
The sky was clear and the air fresh, with the barest hint of the sea carried up the cliff face to the west and over the city by the morning breeze. At the low point of the south road, down the great hill that overlooked the sea, the port town was vibrant with activity, as more ships arrived and a steady stream of merchants began the trek from the port to the capital.
Towards the back of the long procession of traders on the east road, a wagon floundered amongst the rush. Pulled by an old horse and guided by an older merchant, the wagon's wheels shook and its tray shuddered along the dirt road. Merchants and traders swore at the old man. The sea of people swept around and past him.
The old man glanced back at his passenger. Sitting quietly with his legs crossed in the centre of the tray, the elf was just where he'd left him. Three hours previous. The old man shook his head and turned his attention back to the gates.
'Don't worry about him, Heth. Does it all the time.'
The old man glanced at the other one, walking alongside the wagon without a care for the crowd of people shoving past. He had the look of a retired military man, even for someone so young. Light brown hair just starting to gain a little length, a tough build and a wariness hidden behind the sparkle in his eyes.
'Worry about the elfling? Not likely,' Heth muttered. 'Just can't understand how you put up with him, Matt.'
'Lots of practice, my friend, lots of practice,' Matthew said, stepping up onto the wagon as another skipped off the dirt road and cut in front of them.
'You'd think some of these people were in a hurry,' Matthew muttered. He took a seat beside Heth. The gates passed over their heads, a brief moment of shade cooling their faces. The familiar crunch as dirt became cobblestone left Heth's backside bruised.
Carefully avoiding the milling collection of merchants moving up towards the market area, Heth led the wagon along the city's secondary road, through the east quarter. Little had changed in the few months he'd been away from the city. Far to his right he could see the castle, overlooking the rest of the capital from the north quarter. He imagined the halls, filled with servants and advisors, with no one to serve. Word had spread within days of his departure of the king's death.
'City seems to be holding itself up,' Matthew said, stepping back down from the wagon as the road began to clear.
'Why wouldn't it? King or no king, still got to make a living.'
Heth glanced to his left and found his other passenger seated beside him, his hood pulled up. They continued down the road in silence. The wagon slowed at the crossroads, and Heth took a moment to stare up the King's road at the castle gates. Then he turned away and followed the road in the other direction, into the south quarter.
A weak king with power hungry advisors had left little time for improving the south quarter of the capital over the years. The home of the majority of the citizens of Alleria, the streets of the quarter were narrow and the buildings tightly compacted. But while some cities had areas of squalor built up from neglect, Alleria's southern quarter was for the most part clean, as the city's provincial guardsmen strictly enforced the laws on the lower classes.
The old man turned off the main road. He glanced at the elf beside him and cleared his throat.
'I guess you'll be leaving me soon.'
The young man turned his head a touch, nodded once. Heth thought he might get more out of him, but he hadn't in four weeks on the road, why would he now.
'I'd ask you give me a hand unloading all that,' inclining his head towards the tray, 'afore you leave. Less of course you have somewhere you're needed.'
Hidden by the hood, the old man missed the young elf's lips curl up ever so slightly.
'Of course, Heth. It would be rude to do otherwise.'
The old man started, and Matthew burst out laughing. The young elf stepped down from the wagon as it came to a halt under an awning behind a small shop. The elf pulled back his hood, shaking out the mess of black hair that reached his shoulders. Dark hair and grey eyes. An odd combination, even for an elf, Heth thought as he climbed down and opened up the back door to the shop. Matthew brought in the first sack. They worked in silence for half an hour, until the sacks were inside and all that was left on the tray were the young men's belongings.
Heth untied the horse, walking her back to the main road and down to the south quarter stables, leaving her in the hands of one of the stable boys. By the time he'd wandered back, the wagon was secured under the awning, and Matthew was leaning against the doorframe. The elf was just how he'd been the first time he'd laid eyes on the pair of them. Hair loose around his face, green and brown leathers, and gloves despite the spring warmth. The hilt of the sword Heth had spent every moment of the four weeks envying stuck out above his right shoulder.
The elf glanced once at Matthew and offered Heth the purse in his hand. Matthew lowered his head. Heth tipped it open and gasped.
'This is twice what we agreed on. I – I can't accept it.'
'I asked you not to ask questions and you didn't,' the elf said. 'I asked you not to snoop and you didn't. That means something to me, Heth.'
The old man nodded dumbly. There was enough gold in his hands to cover three months' expenses. The elf smiled and turned to leave. Heth reached out and touched his arm.
'Can I ask just one question?'
The young man smiled, his eyes lighting up for a moment, and he bowed his head.
'Four weeks is a long time to go, not knowing one of his companions names…'
'I suppose it is,' the elf said with a laugh. 'My name is Ky.'
And he turned and disappeared around the side of the shop, followed closely by Matthew.