I spied movement coming from the road ahead. Or perhaps it was the shifting shadows of the great oaks playing tricks. The wagon creaked to an uneasy stop. My shaking hands caressed the sickle dangling from my hip. Tallow whinnied, sensing my anxiety. I calmed her with a caress of her neck and gave a few soft taps to encourage her to trudge on. The closer I got the clearer the situation became. A man dressed in rags lay on the ground just off the path. I remained a good distance away. His mare grazed on the grass and leaves beside him. The man hacked up blood before weakly addressing me.
“You there! Merchant! What’re you peddling?”
“Ale. I hear it fetches a good price around these parts.”
The man flew into a coughing fit. He wrapped a stained wool scarf over his mouth before looking back up at me with bloodshot eyes. A cool shiver took hold of my spine. This man was withering.
“I may be a lost cause, but if you could take pity-”
“Can you pay?”
He slowly shook his head, wincing with pain at each short burst of rotation.
“I will alert the local authorities when I get to town. That is the best I can do.”
Without another glance, I gave Tallow a swift kick to her side. She stamped into a hurried trot. As we passed the dying man, the mare spooked and galloped through the trees. Her owner let out a weak cry as I left the wood. Pity is for the superstitious and weak.
The forest opened up to a hill overlooking a good sized village. Houses were sparsely gathered around a tall wooden bell tower. Structures set ablaze, now piles of char peppered the outskirts. The wither had hit this place hard.
I jumped off the saddle and walked the horses down the main road through the center of town. Wary eyes peered at me through closed shutters. I stopped at the base of the bell tower where two people greeted me with excitement. One was a man dressed in red and gold silk, obviously born into wealth. The other was a modest looking women. She wore a dark hood over her face.
“Greetings traveller! Please excuse our surprise, we don’t get many traders around here as of late.” The man beamed. “I am Baron Voss, ruler of these lands. If I may ask, what are you looking to sell today?”
“Ale. I have around two hundred gallons in total. I’m not looking to barter. Price per barrel is one hundred and twenty-five sol.”
The pair looked to each other cautiously. Their bickering began immediately, quickly escalating to screams and threats of violence. I had to get them back on track.
“One at a time now. There’s plenty for both parties, I’m sure of it.”
“Good sir, that’s just it.” The woman explained “There is not. The village needs all of it. The river to the east runs through the wither. People are dying and few have the strength to till the fields. We live off what rainwater and runoff we can capture. I fear more dead by the month’s end. We can pay sir. Everyone will chip in. The Baron would have us die of thirst before lifting a finger to do anything for the wellbeing of his subjects.”
“Now that is just a malicious lie!” Baron Voss was visibly irate. “I told them I would pay for a well! And they have the audacity to say I do nothing!”
“My Lord, we need it now! Else, the crops will not be harvested!”
“Is that a threat? My dear, so help me I will-”
“ENOUGH BICKERING!” I exclaimed. My patience grew thin with these people. The silence did not last.
“I will now present my offer” Baron Voss composed himself. “I am hosting a party at my estate tonight, for which I require ale. A lot of it. You can consider yourself among the invited should you accept my offer. There will be many powerful lords at the table. Many of whom would be delighted to broker a deal with a merchant that still ventures this far south. I will give you seven hundred sol for your entire stock, which I believe is fair seeing as how you are attempting to charge more than twice the market price.”
I licked my lips greedily. A contract with any one of those lords could spark big things. This was an opportunity I could not pass up, and the Baron knew it. He cracked a wry grin and turned to the woman. Fat tears welled up in her eyes.
“I expect the men out tending my crops first thing tomorrow morning.”
The woman resigned her head in defeat, mumbling angrily to herself as she walked away. Baron Voss on the other hand, was beaming with joy. He chuckled and slapped by back with an open palm. On the way to his estate I told him of the withering man by the side of the road. He seemed unfazed.
“I’ll dispatch some men to burn the body. You made the right decision. It’s just business.”