I like unlikely heroes. There is something to be said about someone that accomplishes great things without staggering power. One of my favorite incarnations of this phenomenon was a MMO RPG named Ragnarok Online. I am no stranger to realms of fantasy and RPGs but RO was the first MMO I ever played. For those of you that don’t know, it has a pretty amusing class system.
You start the game as a novice, a talentless hobo that has to literally learn the most basic of skills such as ‘Sit’ and the ability to open chat windows. Eventually you pick one of six classes. Swordman, Thief, Mage, Acolyte, Archer …and Merchant.
I immediately had nightmares of my first attempts to play Dragon Quest 4. That is a rant in itself that I will spare you of. Ok I lied. I’m laying this on the table right now. I have included a handy cutting edge skip feature in the blog. Feel free to utilize it:
The year was 1992, My first attempt at playing Dragon Warrior Quest 4 I was a bright eyed boy of 12 and wanted to relive the terrors joys of Dragon Warrior for the NES. I put the game in, it even decided to work on the first try as some sort of miracle. (You understand if you played the NES) After hearing the ridiculously epic title music, the game offered the customary “Enter thy Name”.
I put in my name, blessed with a four character one that actually fit, but not two seconds after I hit the Enter arrow after my ‘c’, I see:
I felt confused. It made me think I had done something wrong. Unhindered I marched on as a pink armored mustachioed sprite and found that the children of the nation are in peril! Only I was the only one not lazy brave enough to save a bunch of children. Oh. I see what you did there, DQ. I’m saving myself, cool. Cue epic dungeon crawling, boss fight.
Ok. Not gonna lie. I was annoyed. At least Alena was a solid damage dealer and she came with a healer sturdy enough to be a tank and a caster that blew stuff up. Cue epic dungeon crawling, boss fight(s).
Ok. Torneko for you purists but he was Taloon when I played it with my crappy localization. They probably changed it so it could rhyme with Saloon or Vidal Sasoon or something. Regardless, the game has the audacity to put me to work selling long swords to NPCs. In fact the game was so ahead of its time that it perfectly captured the essence of pain in the butt retail customers that act interested, see the price then run! Eventually I actually get off my merchant butt and adventure. Cue epic dungeon crawling, boss fight(s).
My tiny twelve year old brain was being strained at this point. Not only had I been swindled again, but I was stuck with two extremely squishy casters that led me to many a death screens. I will say this was considerably challenging and one of my fondest memories of my rematch with the game but I didn’t exactly appreciate it back then. Cue epic dungeon crawling, boss fight(s).
At that point. I was level 1. Alone. Fighting slimes with a Bamboo stick. You know what? I didn’t want to save the world ANYWAY.
Anyway. Merchants. Merchants lacked awesome skills like Fireballs and such but they could discount goods and overcharge. You can imagine this got old. It did. What was cool about it however was the fact that you COULD do this. Bards never sing tales of the unsung heroes of commerce.
Today’s story is about just that, unsung heroes. Enjoy!
The campfire crackled and popped noisily as a pair of men enjoyed their meal. Roasted rabbit might not have been the most fulfilling of dishes but it was all that was available. The marching armies of Nodaak had laid waste to the nearby villages and scared away any worthwhile game.
“Another?” Chaedek held out one of the roasted beasts by the leg. He was a pale, short, and stout older fellow with a barrel drum belly that contrasted his flimsy looking arms and legs. His clothes were simplistic and layered for travel. A dusty mop of sand colored hair was pulled together with a cream colored headband.
“No thank you, Chaedek.” Gothe said. He was an olive skinned, lightly armored young man in his mid-twenties. Pale grey steel held together with black stained leather covered him from head to toe. At his side, a curved blade hidden by a black steel sheathe. His hair was long and jet black, pulled into a tidy ponytail. “One is enough. I don’t need to have a full stomach to slow my pace.”
“You are what you eat.” Chaedek smiled. “So I imagine if I ate two or three of these speedy little rats I might keep better pace. Aren’t you glad I packed traps Gothe?”
“I am.” The mercenary grinned. “Better that then having to chase them down myself.”
The merchant quickly devoured the rabbit, it was fattier than the last one and the stringy meat fell off the bone with little effort. He tossed the remaining carcass atop the fire sending a plume of smoke into the air.
“So where are we headed?” Gothe raised prodded at the fire with a stick.
“East.” Chaedek pointed. “The road is smoother that way. I don’t want Penny to hurt a leg on the way.”
The Mercenary turned towards the old grey horse. It was as good as glue as far as he was concerned. It barely had enough teeth to chew it’s bounty of oats as they ate. He watched his employer grind a carrot into a fine paste.
“You should get a new horse and a new cart while you’re at it.” Gothe frowned at him.
“Why? Penny is healthy and my cart is sturdy as any.”
“Your cart is old and falling apart.”
“What? It gives it character. Besides a new cart would cost coin and it would be a rather large broadcast to any thieves that I enjoy having my money stolen.” Chaedek stood with the dish of mush and walked over to Penny. The horse greedily nipped it.
“You have me though.” Gothe aimed a thumb at himself. “I’m the finest swordsman on the plains. You don’t need to worry about thieves.
“Perhaps not.” Chaedek patted Penny’s mane. “Tell me Gothe, why are you on the plains? Surely you weren’t just looking for work.”
“I…” the mercenary glanced away. “I’m looking for my sister, Lio.”
“I see. Slavers then…” Chaedek frowned. “Bane of the merchant world I tell you.”
“How did you know?” Gothe’s eyes widened. “I never…”
“…your eyes told me. Conviction in a man is as easy to read as a ledger. I’ve only travelled with you a short time, but I know what you’re after. I have business in the place you’ll likely find her. How old is she?”
“Eleven.” Gothe said.
“That’s good. You have plenty of time to find her then.” Chaedek eyed the empty carrot dish and paced back over to the fire. He grunted as he sat. “I can make a bid on her when we get back to Fale-Denni if you wish. I’d have to take the cost out of your wages.”
“That’s fine.” Gothe glared at the fire.
“So it was recent. Typically, when things like this happen in the past, people would say something like ‘she would be eleven’ rather than the present.”
“It was at the beginning of spring.” Gothe’s eyes locked on Chaedek. “Don’t tell me you make it habit to buy slaves?”
“Me? No no no… I simply know the trade fairly well. While it remains illegal in the free nations it can be made ‘legal’ with binding contracts. I pride myself on my knowledge of such contracts and I am quite an expert at finding their loopholes.” Chaedek drummed a hand on his belly idly. “Its profitable work it itself. Naturally if I make a profit on your sister’s ordeal I won’t expect you to pay me.”
Gothe laughed. “Such kindness, I’m not sure I deserve it.”
“Well you’ve done well enough so far. That and you’ve let me tag along on your little journey. I do love a good adventure.”
An arrow lodged itself into his pack. Both their eyes turned to it a moment before its meaning sunk in.
Gothe stood and drew his sword. “Get to your cart we’re under attack!”
Chaedek squinted into the woods and raised a hand to his brow. “Oh. I suppose we are.”
“Don’t just stand there! Move!” Gothe pointed urgently.
“There’s no point.” The merchant frowned. “We’re surrounded.”
Gothe turned to see seven men on one side of the camp brandishing wicked looking axes. Another six were at his other side. Where Chaedek was looking there were no more than twelve. “An ambush? Here?”
“Afraid so,” He stood calmly and raised his hands up in submission.
“You’re giving up?” Gothe glared back at him. He had no intent to cast aside his weapon.
“That arrow lodged in my pack. It’s made with hollow-oak. These aren’t thieves, they’re soldiers. Men of Nodaak.” Chaedek nodded over to three approaching men.
“Are you two alone?” The man in front said.
“Aye,” Chaedek said with a smile. “I’m just a friendly merchant and his particularly foolish bodyguard. My name’s—“
“I don’t care.” The man at front said shifting his gaze at Gothe. “Drop your sword or you’ll be feathered.”
“I refuse.” Gothe stepped in front of Chaedek. “We can still cut through you and make our way to safety. No offense, but I’d sooner fight twenty of you than bargain with one.”
The man at front smirked behind his helmet. The sound of arrows being notched and bows being drawn taut was unsettling. The men of Nodaak were fearless fighters. They stood a head taller than most of the inhabitants of the Plains and wore steel helmets with blood dyed plumes that only added to his height. Gothe, being tall for a Westerlan was only a few inches shorter than the man in charge.
By comparison, Chaedek’s short stubby appearance was ludicrously drastic. He might as well had been an ant amongst a party of Giants. He flexed his hands anxiously at Gothe’s bravado. He wasn’t completely stupid. If he successfully convinced them he was formidable they would want to cross blades with him, not slaughter him.
The boy was formidable though; he was about fifteen years younger than Chaedek and was no stranger to the sword. Regardless of that his actions were foolish.
“What’s your name boy?” The soldier at front said. “My name is Baakta Tost. I would be glad to personally give you an honorable death.”
“Gothe Gabrani.” He bowed politely.
“How much money would you like to make before you die?” A dark voice came from behind Gothe. It took a moment for Gothe to realize it was the rotund merchant Chaedek Jules behind him that spoke. Despite the grim tone, the merchant was wearing a smile.
“Excuse me?” Baakta glared past Gothe. “Are you talking to me fat man?”
“I am.” He smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He had lowered his hands and settled them across his stomach.
“Was that a threat?” Baakta jabbed a finger at him.
“It was a question.” Chaedek smiled genuinely. “How much money do you want to make before you die? It’s a reasonable question. Everyone dies eventually. We’re all mortal. There’s no way to counter that. For me, I want to make more money than any other man has ever made. I want to have touched every coin in the plains at least twice.”
He leaned forward coyly. “I am familiar with your people Mr. Tost and their practices, but pillaging cities is no way to make profit. You need to take a different approach.”
Gothe’s eyes widened. “Are you bargaining with them? These men?”
“Of course, and you are my employee. I suggest you allow me to work.” Chaedek turned his eyes to Gothe briefly. “Besides, I do not doubt your ability to carve your way through these giants so much as I do not want to abandon my goods and my horse for the sake of ‘fear’.”
Baakta hooted a laugh. “Ha! I like you fat man. You have balls.”
“I call it business sense.” He shrugged.
“I will answer your question. I wish to have coin enough to bathe in it. I would like enough coin to melt them down and make a statue of me.” Baakta drummed a fist on his chest.
“Tell me Mr. Tost. You look like a bright man. When you see this humble camp do you see the potential to make this sort of money?” He gestured at the camp.
“No.” Tost narrowed his eyes down at him.
“That’s a bad angle to play…” Gothe said. Penny seemed to agree as he let out an unimpressed snort and made his way to chew on some foliage. Armed men watched in silent awe as the horse calmly ignored them and took the choicest berries near their readied weapons.
Chaedek tapped the side of his head. “But this does. Your desire is reasonable and accomplished fairly easy. I know the trade routes better than my grandfather knows my sibling’s names. There are fourteen of us. It’s very confusing in his defense.”
“I am losing my patience fat man. After we defeat your guard we will be roasting you like the stuck pig you are.”
Chaedek wagged a finger, ignoring the threat. “To the south-west of here there is a route that harbors the golden vein of the plains. As the sun makes its final descent a personal ‘friend’ of mine will be marching roughly four-thousand bars of gold down that road. A stout bunch like you would have no problem picking off a measly merchant caravan.”
“Hmm,” Baakta rubbed his chin. “I approve of this. You shall ride with us and if you are lying…”
Chaedek shrugged. “I’m afraid that won’t work. I’m afraid I would only slow you down. By the time I hitched up Penny not to mention the old boy isn’t up to swift travel these days… you would miss your chance. Surely you know of the military check point due south of here. If he arrives there, you’ll have to fight an entire battalion.”
He grinned. “Needless to say, I know the beliefs of the Nodaak honor challenge, it does not expect you to march into a situation defined as suicide.”
Baakta narrowed his eyes at him a moment then waved to his fellows. “Leave this place! I’ve found us a greater quarry.” Baakta Tost shot a look back at the merchant as his men brought war horses for him and his escort. “If you are lying pig-man… We will run you down for this.”
“Trust me. I am the most honest man you are bound to meet. The next time we meet you will thank me for this opportunity. I swear it.” Chaedek grinned as they rode off.
Gothe stood agape as their horses footsteps thundered off.
“How did you… Wait. We need to move. They’ll be back when they realize you were lying.”
“We’ll be fine. I wasn’t.” He glanced over at him and rubbed the top of his stomach. “Though he might not be back…”
“What do you mean…?”
“Merchants pay good coin to protect their wares. Yes. I told him the truth of an extremely valuable shipment of gold, but he would likely have better luck fighting Plainsmen military twice his size.” Chaedek chuckled as he plucked out the arrow that plunged into his pack. He calmly slipped it into one of the side pockets, an intact Nodaak arrow would actually sell for a decent amount. “Why do you think I hired you…?”
Gothe calmly sheathed his blade. “Sometimes I wonder. I haven’t had to do anything since being hired by you…”
“Rest assured my good man.” Chaedek gave him a pat on the arm. “Your skill with a blade might have caught my eye, but your restraint is the real reason I hired you. Any mindless pup could draw a blade, but it takes a real man of business to keep blood in veins where they belong.”
“Thanks… I guess.” The swordsman made a face.
“But with that said, it certainly won’t hurt to continue East, we have your sister to save after all. Lio was it?” He rubbed his double chin thoughtfully. “Do you have some place to go once you find her?”
“No…” Gothe looked away. “Mother and Father are dead, our home was burned.”
“Then when we find her, why don’t you stay with me? I’ve always wanted to form an entourage… and if she’s anything like you. She can be my apprentice. Eleven is a fine age to start learning the trade.”
Gothe gave him a sideways glance. “You’re awful confident.”
“Confidence is a matter of business. And I know business.” Chaedek approached Penny and started to lash him to the cart. “If not, you can work for me until you can get on your feet.”
“Thank you.” Gothe gave a proper bow.
“So… for future reference. Would you have been able to kill those men? If it was the only choice available.”
“Maybe.” Gothe smirked. “Would you have been willing to abandon your stock?”
“Never,” Chaedek scowled and snuggled Penny’s snout. “You never abandon friends. In the world of business, it is more or less impossible to find ones you trust.”