Zoiya: A Hunt in the Snow
After spending a night in Windreach, Zoiya decides to tackle her empty coin purse problem and sets out in search of work.
I’m used to rising with the sun, feeling my body pulled to consciousness as rays of light poked through the canopy and filtered into my home. Sleeping in a room with no windows is what I imagine sleeping in a cave is like, stuck in perpetual darkness and relying on your own willpower to recognize that while it may still look like night, dawn has passed and it is time to begin work.
I told Zachary that I would be leaving for Astral Peak today, but thinking it over as I pull on my layers of traveling gear, that may have been a hasty plan. If I can, it would be better to rest my body and take time to prepare for the last push of the journey ahead. I have enough coin for one more night and enough of a meal to sustain me, but if I want anything more than that, I’ll have to find a way to earn some while I’m here. Not to mention that it wouldn’t be smart to run my coin purse out completely, especially when I still have to make it back down the mountain.
Windreach doesn’t hold many residents, but there’s a chance someone around here has a task that they’d be willing to pay for. If nothing else, I can always go hunting, though that’s a risk when I know little about creatures found in mountain terrain. Tribe elders told stories of monsters beyond the forest. I don’t know how much truth there is to them, but with magic, I suppose nothing is impossible.
After donning all of my belongings, I swing the bow around my back and exit into the hallway of the inn, shutting the door of the cave-like room behind me. Voices of morning conversation can be heard over the creaks of the wooden stairs as I head down and enter the tavern. A third of the tables in the lobby have patrons. Most wear many layers of traveling gear, a few sport leather armor, and one dwarf even has chainmail. Clearly, these were more the well-off travelers that the merchant woman had been expecting to see, rather than me, a young huntress who had only been on her own and earning her own money for a matter of weeks.
There’s no sign of Zachary, or that half-orc announcing the daily news. The innkeeper stands at the bar wiping the counter with a cloth rag, but stops as I approach.
“Good morrow.” He tosses the rag underneath the counter and brushes his hands together. “Enjoy your stay?”
“It’ll do,” I say, adjusting the strap of my bag to avoid a sore spot on my shoulder. “I’d like breakfast.”
The innkeeper turns and shouts the order into the back room. “A few minutes,” he says to me.
“Listen, I’m sure you’d know better than anyone,” I say, and the innkeeper leans in, propping himself on his elbows over the counter. “Where would be the best place to look to earn a bit of coin in this town?”
The innkeeper taps the counter with his palm. “Honestly, with the nature of my job, I hear more from foreigners about drama outside of the town than within it. I don’t know much about that.”
“But surely with most people passing through rather than staying, there’s work that people haven’t found the right help to accomplish.”
He shrugs. “You could ask around at the market, see if anyone needs an extra hand with their merchandise. But most who live here have families to take care of the extra work they need.”
An elven girl with bright red hair tied up in a bun appears from the back and sets a wooden plate with eggs and bread in front of me. She smiles before returning to the back room.
“Good luck.” The innkeeper nods to me before bending down to retrieve the rag and returns to wiping the counter.
I take a deep breath before reaching into my pouch and retrieving my last gold coin. I toss it onto the counter. “Put me down for another night.”
Surprise flashes over his face before he quickly masks it with the smile of a man who just got a little bit richer. He nods to me and swipes away the coin.
After finishing my breakfast, I leave the tavern to head down to the market. The sky is clear of clouds, making visibility of the town significantly easier, especially from the vantage point on this hill. The center square is surrounded by one large connected building that I now know makes up the market. Beyond that are scattered houses built on whatever foundation of flat ground that can be seen. Each house is unique in shape and doesn’t follow any coherent pattern. I suspect that if a family wants to live here, they must build their own house on this mountain to join the rest.
I start down the hill towards the center of town. The snow hasn’t quite cleared from the path, so I take careful steps at an angle. A stumble could lead to quite a slide and terrible injury. What a damn shame it would be to fall to my death before even reaching my destination. With patience, I make it to the bottom of the hill and into the market square. It’s empty of people, as it was yesterday, but now I know that is because this isn’t truly where the shops are. There are signs hanging above each door, but they’re covered in a layer of frost that makes them impossible to read. Though, as the woman said, all the shops are connected. I pick the nearest door and head inside.
The walls of this small shop are riddled with hooks that display leather bags of all shapes and sizes, coils of rope, climbing instruments, and lots more equipment that I can’t afford but would’ve been smart to have before ever setting foot on the Squall Mountains. Oh well.
“Hoy there!” A tall woman with the pointy ears of an elf steps out from behind a counter against the far wall. She wears leather straps around her torso that carry various pouches and a flowing cloth robe over everything. “I’m Tanila, owner of this shop, Tanila’s Traveler’s Wears. Wherever you’re headed on this mountain pass, I can hook you up with the gear you need to survive it. What exactly are you looking for?”
“I’m not here to buy,” I say, walking up to the counter and leaning against it on my elbows. Tanila folds her hands together and circles around behind it once more. “I need to earn some coin, and was wondering if you had any work I could take up. Or know someone who does.”
“Ah, I see.” Tanila taps her palm on the counter twice and then leans back against the wall. “I don’t, actually. I do all of this work myself, and it’s perfectly manageable.”
I nod and stand up straight.
“You’ll find that the coin that circulates around here is used just to keep the rest of us alive. We keep our purses tight. You can try, but I doubt you’ll find anyone willing to pass it on to you.”
“I would think being the only resting place for travelers up here would make a town quite rich.”
Tanila scoffs. “Have you looked around? Our houses are made of wood cracked and broken by the storms, not to mention that we don’t even have the money to fix it. How many people do you think actually come up here?”
“All I hear is people complaining about living here,” I say, taking a glance at the door across the room that leads out of the shop and onto the indoor path that is the rest of the market. “Why does anyone stay?”
She shrugs. “Keeps us away from the drama of the rest of the world. Royalty. Boundary squabbles. Racial divisions. Wars and all that. At least life here is predictable.”
Keeping a predictable life is something I can at least relate to. Though after twenty years, I didn’t find it as comforting as these people do.
I bid Tanila a good day and enter into the walkway between shops. It’s a long wooden hallway, lit by enclosed lanterns that glow with a yellow light that doesn’t flicker with dancing colors like a flame. Even up the tallest mountain, magic has a presence. I can hear a few other pairs of footsteps in other parts of the hallway, but not nearly as many as one would expect in a town market. The dwarf in chainmail that was in the tavern last night stumbles past me, carrying a backpack almost as large as himself, while I glance into each shop I pass, searching for somewhere I could lend my skills. I find the jeweler’s, a pastry shop, a display of medicines and potions that likely use magic, which I certainly don’t have or know. I remember what Zachary said about “selling your sword”, and know that it’s possible that might be the only skill I have worth selling.
So when I spot shelves of furs, horns, teeth, and claws collected from beasts of the wilds, I know that this may be the only real shot I have, or else I’m packing up at dawn.
I enter the shop and clear my throat loudly.
A man emerges from behind one of the shelves, wiping his hands with a cloth. A thick coat hides much of his physique, the fur piled up all the way to his black scruffy beard. The edges of the coat are lined with small teeth.
“Do you own this shop?” I ask, taking a few steps further in.
“Yes.” He tucks the cloth in a pocket of his pants. “You’ll find these shelves are covered with trophies of all sorts of creatures of this world, both wearable and for display.” He reaches over to the shelf nearest to him and holds up a large, curved fang. “This here is a basilisk fang. Quite rare, that is.”
“I didn’t know you could find basilisks around here.” A spike of fear courses through me—I’m not ready to fight a basilisk.
“You can’t,” he says, placing the tooth back on the shelf. “I bought it off a monster hunter who came through here.” The man weaves through the shelves, walking past me. “The question is, what kind of traveler are you? What might you be looking for?”
I clear my throat again. “I hunt, and I was wondering if I could offer my services.”
The man pauses and turns back to me. “You hunt creatures around here?”
I rest my hand on one of the axes attached to my belt. “Not exactly. My experience is elsewhere, but it can’t be too different.”
“You won’t be saying that after you’ve tried. The monsters that live in these mountains aren’t your average forest wolf. They’ve grown to live in harsh, snowy conditions, feeding off whatever scrap they can find. None will hesitate to attack a traveler who’s wandered off the path. Most encounter things like trolls or that pack of giants that patrol the remote areas. Some swear they’ve heard harpies singing while walking Polar Pass. Nasty things, harpies.”
“Then I guess I’ll just have to spot them before they see me.”
The man exhales. “You wouldn’t be the first to succeed, but you wouldn’t be the first to get eaten out there, either.”
I swallow hard. “I realize it’s quite the risk. Honestly, I wouldn’t do it if I had a choice. I really need work.”
“If you happen to get anything, I’ll pay you for what you bring back. I wish you luck out there.”
I dip into a slight bow. “You’ll see me again this evening with what I’ve gathered.”
Hopefully hunting in heavy snow isn’t that different from hunting in a forest that only gets occasional light snow cover. Surely it would be easier since prints will be displayed prominently. Right?
Here’s the thing about snow—it replaces itself quite often. It covers up tracks. It’s all the same color, making visibility difficult. Creatures that live in such a place are often also white. It’s all one big mess that makes my day incredibly challenging. Heeding the shopkeeper’s warning, I try not to stray too far from the path leading west out of Windreach, what I understand to be the Polar Pass. But there’s only so much wildlife to be found when you can’t venture out into the untrodden paths.
The noise of the wind makes it incredibly difficult to listen for movement. There may be animals that I just don’t see, but I scare them away by shifting uncomfortably from the cold. At the end of the day, I return with only a goat. One skinny, old mountain goat. Sure, I didn’t encounter any of these dangerous monsters the shopkeeper seemed to be so wary of. But this one goat was the only living thing I saw all day, and they’re likely the most common animal in this area.
The two large horns bounce and clack together as I follow the path back to Windreach, barely able to be heard over the sound of the wind. After I recovered my arrow and harvested the horns, the only thing I could imagine the shopkeeper would be interested in, I even waited around to see if the animal would attract any other creatures. But after about an hour of sitting somewhat quietly in the cold, there was still no sign of any life, and as the hours passed and day shifted into evening I noticed the winds picking up and clouds collecting in the sky. I wasn’t about to be stuck out in another storm on a road prone to avalanches, so here I am on my way back, having only narrowly escaped returning empty handed.
I’ll try to sell the pelt, too, but the long labor of tanning the pelt may not be worth it for some sparse goat fur. I’d do it for more winter gear if I had the time and the supplies. As for the meat, I’m keeping that for myself, but who knows if I’ll get a chance to cook it before it spoils.
I enter Windreach just before the sun has begun to set. The shopkeeper is about to close the door of the shop when I arrive, goat horns, and pelt in hand.
He folds his arms across his chest. “So you did return. Unharmed, as it seems.”
“I stayed cautious,” I say. “Probably too cautious. But I do have these.” I hold out the items.
He raises an eyebrow as he glances at them. “You know those are worth very little here.”
I shrug. “It’s what I have, and you said you would pay me for whatever I found.”
“Whatever you found of use.” He turns his back and walks to a hook on the wall, holding a backpack. Digging inside, he produces a small leather pouch that clinks loudly as he drops it into his palm. From it, the shopkeeper pulls five silver pieces and exchanges them for the horns, then grabs the pelt and tosses it over onto the counter. I nod in thanks. The shopkeeper says nothing as he puts everything else in the backpack and slings it over his shoulder.
“If you ever find anything else, come back,” he says.
I drop the pieces into my own coin pouch, trying to slow my nervous heart. This is only half of what I’d need for a third night at the inn. “I spent a whole day out in the dangers of this freezing mountain and only caught a goat. I doubt I’ll have much success by going out again.” I walk away, leaving the shop and the market to start back up the hill towards the tavern for the night.
This isn’t sustainable. I tried to find work that would allow me to stay here and I failed. I could go hunting again, but I think I got lucky with that goat. What if I spent a whole day and came back with nothing? Then I’d be entirely lost. The sooner I go to Astral Peak, the sooner I can leave the Squall Mountains and find somewhere I can actually support myself. Or return to the tribe, if that’s even an option. If I’d even want to go back.
As I crest the hill and approach the tavern door, there’s a group of people that are currently exiting. They look like mercenaries, though not of the same band, dressed in battle gear of all origins and all with at least one weapon in hand. The tavern door swings closed behind the last of the people to walk out—a burly elf with a strip of cloth tied around his forehead. He sees me and smirks.
“Was Astral Peak everything you dreamed of?” Zachary says mockingly.
“I haven’t gone yet.”
Zachary pauses, falling behind as the group curves around to the back of the tavern.
“What are these people doing?” I ask.
“Don’t you remember?” He points with the sword in his hand towards them. “These people wish to join the new adventuring company.”
Right. Of course. The tests to prove yourself worthy of joining begins at sundown.
He lowers his arm as the rest of the group disappears behind the building. “You should come.”
“I can’t, I have a mission.”
“Forget your mission.” Zachary stands up straighter and crosses his arms. “I challenge you to these trials.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I pinned you as quite the fighter, but I actually have no proof. Come onnnn,” he draws out the word like a begging child. “Show everyone what you’re capable of. Just do it for the thrill. Then you can go back to your ill-fated soul-searching. Or else,” he smirks, “you’re just a coward.”
I grit my teeth. He’s trying to goad me into it. This is ridiculous. A complete distraction. Entirely unnecessary. Who fights people just for the thrill of it?
Unfortunately for my well-thought-out plans…I do. And I also don’t back down from a challenge.
“Fine,” I say. “But only to avoid spending the evening sitting alone in an empty room. It’s just for fun.”
“That’s all I ask,” Zachary says, his smirk widening into a smile.
I follow him to the fighting ring behind the inn.