A Profession In Procurement, Service To a Lady

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It so occasioned that the last light bells were tolling in Dale, silver bells, bronze bells, and at times the most delicate of bells - like chimes. Dale, now rebuilt under the rules of Bard and his heirs (the present being King Brand,) was a domain of stone and towers as of old, with arching bridges over the Celduin, cunning waterways and flumes devised at the hands of the dwarves from the Mountain, good friends with the Bardings in those days. The ruins has been restored, the old rebuilt better.

The rush and splutter of water was heard from the Waterside Market, the Running River in it's channel, flecked rose red in the last lights of day. Folks, as they are wont to do, began to move indoors, though that did not always mean they went to their homes. In those latter days of Dale Renewed there was quite an increasing number of inns as trade and travel again took hold in the Rhovannion; the bells of Dale rang again and Dain's folk were again hammering in Erebor the Lonely! And so it was there usually quite a commotion at night, albeit not in the same places as in the light hours.

At the Waterside Market was the Running River Red (called so for a Red-Hooded Duck) and it was a comely building, plastered off-white with a gabled roof over its two stories and trimmed handsomely in ruddy red. Off the covered porch was strung the sign donning its name, and it might have been unremarkable if it weren't for the red-hooded duck swimming in a tankard of beer. It was quite a happy duck; you could see so in its face. A lot of Bardings also made their preference the Red.

The significance of the Running River Red to us, however, is that on this night, the fourth night of the month we would call April in the year TE 3018, there was a certain burglaring type within the establishment, though he would have sneered at you for using such a base word as 'burgle' in reference to his profession. These kinds of folk go by many different names from without, names given to them but not asked for, as sometimes they are rather uncouth or just plain untrue, such as 'burglar,' 'thief,''cut-purse,''pick-pockets' - you get the idea. Though some had perhaps at one time, this particular thief had never even 'cut purses' or 'picked pockets' and he considered such behavior beneath him, as quite roguish and unprofessional for a true Expert.

That evening, as the lamp lights were being lit and the fires stoked, Basso the fence assumed his usual place alongside the hearth and as the fire flicked brighter the shadows beside deepened. Only by the paleness of his skin and the glint of his eyes would you have known he was there at all. At length, a young woman entered the Red as well, slender of face and golden-haired, braided and bound at the nape of her neck. A scarlet cloak was clasped at her throat with a pearl and silver broach. She looked at Basso squarely, emotionless, and, without a word or gesture, crossed the inn's common room, and took flight up wide stair at the rear of the chamber.

Basso's client.

A half hour later, as the patrons were becoming quite boisterous and mucking up the room with song and dance, another expected face showed itself, albeit this one was much less pleasant to look upon thought Basso with a wry grin. Unfortunately, this was also the one he needed most to speak with.

"Henglaf," Basso called, waving him over.

Basso's 'Procurer of Goods.'

Henglaf had the look of most true Bardings, grim-faced and tall, but there was a strain of something else in him as well, a thing nobler yet more grave, a thing that Basso could never quite place. He could see it most clearly in the Man's eyes, gray like the gray of a wet stone pulled from a stream. Heredity was not really a concern of his fortunately; Henglaf was a good thief and was such for many reasons, not the least being his lean build, generous allowance of patience, and perhaps just simply the gift of cunning. Anyone could steal, but not everyone could blend into the shadows and steal into and back out of a fat lord's mansion without anyone being the wiser.

"Sit down, Hen, sit down. You look terrible," Basso asserted, not really one for pleasantries or pleasantness. "What have you been into?"

"Don't be a cuss," replied Henglaf, rolling his fingers on the table top. "I'd wager your blood would have turned cold if you had been on my last job. I'm supposed to look terrible," he added. "What do you have for me?"

A din of laughter caught their attention nearby then, but once it had settled down again Basso edged forward with his elbows on the table. Just over a whisper, he said, "I have a client, upstairs-"

"A client here?" interrupted Henglaf, a brow raised. This was a change he was not used to. Basso gave him the jobs and the details and paid him for the charge; it was that simple. There was no interfacing with clientele, and that was for everyone's own good.

Basso waved him to settle down. "Yes, yes, she's here, upstairs. Let me finish and be a good little fence's pawn. Now then, as I was saying: she would like to speak with you herself concerning an interest in a certain bauble she fancies. All I know, all I was told, is that she will only tell you the details herself and the pay is handsome."

"And what might that be?" wondered Henglaf, noticing only after the fact whoever this person was was not confident in telling a fence about a thieving job, somewhat of an irony perhaps. He might have asked more about this more-than-minor detail if the words 'pay' and 'handsome' had not been there to distract him.

Basso was now wearing a smug grin in the eerie light, scarcely containable despite that he was quite the stolid fellow and hardly ever got excited about anything. "Remember the Donal job? Well, this would pay out at least four times that, plus more for... unforeseen snags."

Now, wealth and shining things did not kindle a fire in his soul the same way it did with Basso, but Henglaf knew that he could easily retire on such a sum as was being discussed, even after Basso's cut (and he suspected the miser would ask for a larger percentage than normal in spite of all this.) What concerned our good Barding at the moment, however, was what kind of job elicited such a price tag? And what snags? It already sounded top-heavy with danger, risk, certain capture or death, all of it.

"What room?"

"Seven. Knock thrice."

((Thank you all for the warm welcome last night. Talk to you soon. -H))

Henglaf made way upstairs without another word or sign. He was content to take up the discussion elsewhere; he didn't particularly like Basso. In fact, he found Basso to be quite an unwholesome fellow and thought, going down a sconce-lit corridor, of cutting the greedy whelp out of any dealings altogether. The way his dark eyes twinkled at the talk of shining things had always unsettled the Barding; with Basso it was always more, more, and yet more to the point where one might do well to make sure he looked over his shoulder and knew where the fence (or his underlings) was when at all possible (which it always wasn't since he slinked around like a weasel.) Henglaf was not Basso's only resource either for that matter. An unfortunate inconvenience in Henglaf's line of work.

The floorboards groaned under his weight (another unfortunate inconvenicne of his work) as he stepped up to the seventh room down the hall, garnished with a white, fanciful number seven underscored by a duck laid on its back clutching a tankard. Too much too drink, supposed Henglaf whimsically. Looking down either stretch of the hall and seeing no one, he wrapped lightly upon the door:

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

There was a brief shuffle, as of someone removing themselves from a chair and crossing the room within, and then there was the 'click' of a lock being thrown aside before the door was at last parted. A red light pierced out into the corridor, the red light of a burning hearth.

"Are you Henglaf?" The woman peered through the crack between the door and jamb. He could just make out the blue of her eye peeking out.

"I am he. I just spoke with Basso."

She looked at him for a moment, unflinching, perhaps sizing him up or perhaps the truth of his identity. This made the Man somewhat uneasy; she seemed to be looking through him, up, down, within, without, and it seemed no facet of himself could be hidden from her searching eyes. At length she allowed him entry. As he stepped in he heard the wary sound of steel sliding against steel and knew without looking she had sheathed a dagger. He was not unfamiliar with the sound for his part.

"I am Henglaf, the Son of Hengast." He turned about to face her directly, to see the face of the one he addressed, a thing he was most curious to do. Her eyes were only somewhat lower than his own (and he was quite tall for his kind,) and those eyes were blue like the morning sky is blue, only keen and apprehending as the sight of a falcon.

"And I am called Lady Alfrun, Son of Hengast. Please, sit." She gestured toward a set of armchairs set before the fire, facing one another and with a low table set between them. There were several folded parchments thereon and also a bronze-gilded, mahogony box that Henglaf thought most curious (and expensive looking.)

The burglar seated himself and the Lady Alfrun did the same, though she said nothing for quite some time and only looked at him, much like she had at the door only perhaps somewhat less menacingly now (and without a drawn dagger, for which reason he liked her much better already.)

"I'm sure you're wondering," said she, crossing her legs and folding her hands over a knee, "why you're talking to me and not Basso." Quite an astute assumption. "Frankly, the nature of this business is best kept to as few ears as possible. Provided you accept my proposal my use for the fence is at an end - and none too quickly," she asserted dryly.

"Son of Hengast," Alfrun continued, unblinking and poignant, like she were conducting business, "I have a pressing matter and object which I'd like retrieved as quickly and quietly as possible. Though I know little of your work, I'll wager this won't be your normal fare." The firelight burnished her hair gold and set a glow in her eyes.

Henglaf remained as unmoved and expressionless as possible. He had had difficult jobs before, jobs improvised on, jobs scarcely escaped from, but there was a grave quality about this woman, as though she had the knowledge of something both dire and fell as yet to be revealed. "What is this item exactly?"

That was the burning question.

In answer to this inevitable inquiry, Lady Alfrun removed one of the folded parchments from the table and, unfolding the delicate paper, handed him his answer. Thereon, in what looked to be a crude drawing in chalk, was simply a ring. He had, of course, seen an inordinate number of rings in his time, and this one seemed no different: the band he guessed was smooth and at its head was set a small stone, the color of which was dark from the sketch and perhaps the size of one's smallest nail. Silver hands clutched it round.

"A ring then?" he posed, as curious as he was surprised. While some rings certainly held a value, not many occasioned to live up to the reward offered for this one. "What is it made of? And the stone?"

"Silver throughout. The gem is topaz, nothing more."

The Barding looked at Alfrun with growing suspicion, as someone does when they know something is being withheld from them. "A silver and topaz ring," he summarized dubiously looking at the sketch again. "Good Lady, might I suggest we go and see some of Dain's folk up in yonder mount. A fairer ring than this could be had from them and for scarcely the sum which you've offered at the procuring of the one here drawn."

Alfrun shook her head. "I have no interest in Dwarven rings, Master Henglaf, but I am interested in this ring. The value of it need not concern you. That is not to say it is valuable as the word goes; yet, neither is it valueless; there are those who would appreciate it and those who would not. I will not say anymore about it than I have, though. I drew that picture simply so that you would know it by sight. Now you know. If you insist on knowing more then, well, I must find another burglar I think."

"Fair enough, fair enough," he assented, though hardly committed to dropping the matter. "I need only to know of the object that needs procuring and where I might find it. We've covered the 'what,' but how about the 'where?'"

"The ring was stolen from my brother two weeks past. I believe the thieves to reside in Mirkwood."

Mirkwood the Fell. Perhaps the only thing more writhen and rotten than its trees were the folks who called it their home (less the elves in the northern reaches, of course.) It's dreadful reputation was well matched by its sheer size, wherein one could easily get lost even with all his wits. He had been within its outskirts once, though it was in service to King Brand (years past, of course, and a story told elsewhere,) and not for his own gain, and it had been only his sense of duty to Dale, his bygone peers, and something he knew not what (perhaps courage) that had constrained him to remain in that wasteland. A sense of anger overhung it, a fear of unseen dangers lived in every shadow, half-heard whispers writhed under every tree. The trees and every growing thing there seemed to cry out for a relief from something, an oppression, a rot from within. Yes, it was a waste land just as it was a haunted land, and the only ones that could bear to stay therein were either servants of the Enemy in some fashion or the ghosts of bygone ages remaining to hound the living.

He realized then he needed desperately to swallow for his throat was parched to even think on such things. His memories of the Wood had been, until then, safely tucked away in the vaults of his mind; he had not had any desire to retrieve them, leastways not until there was a grandchild bouncing upon his knee he could bother with such stories.

"Do my eyes deceive me, or have you grown somewhat pale?" Alfrun noted, no doubt observing some visible change in him, a reaction. Perhaps she mocked him?

"I did not think there was anything worth retrieving in that place, much less searching for. How would you know that your brother's ring is there?"

"I have my suspicions," said she plainly, perhaps having expected that very question. "Chief amongst them, though, is that it was none other than the servants of the Tower who took the ring."

"The Tower?"

"Yes, Dol Guldur," she replied, and then hastily added, "and do not ask me how I know."

Henglaf shifted nervously in his armchair. "So, you're proposing that I bust into Dol Guldur and fight my way through creatures unnameable and probably uncountable? And I'm supposed to take for granted that somewhere in the fortress is your little ring, tucked away in some sorcerer's vault no less? This sounds less like a job, and more like you're trying to get me killed outright." He followed that train of thought further. "Are you working for another thief? Did that cuss Bowen put you up to this? If so, there's going to be knife-work tonight - and starting with you be it you're a deceiver." There were those that shared his line of work that would have preferred Henglaf removed from their equations, and a handful of those same ones were clever enough to have a chance at seeing it done. Alfrun wouldn't have been the first pretty face to have crossed his path with a mind to see his undoing at the behest of another.

And then she did something he did not expect. For all her previous unimpassioned and reserved speech, she laughed at him. And it was a warming laughter that disarmed him and made him feel a fool "Your trade seems to breed a unquenchable wariness, Son of Hengast!" She made to arrest herself and settled down, and said, though still with a smile tugging at her lips, "I have not been put up by anyone other than myself, and as a token of good will I can pay out one quarter of the sum of payment up front, in precious gems - which is more money that I'm sure this fellow Bowen is bound to have."

The Barding sighed and sank back into his chair, his suspicions in fact fully abated, though where there had been suspicion was now chagrin. The menace of Mirkwood began to loom large again, though, in his mind and heart. The room was still and neither spoke, and thoughts of the forest rolled over him, returning as a menace and a terror. Aside from the inherent desolation, danger, and the fear that the forest put in the hearts of Men (which were quite formidable obstacles in themselves without any additions,) there were the practical considerations to also bring into his accounting: he didn't know where the ring even was, the forest was rife with foes, in especial near Dol Guldur and lower garrisons (as he recalled,) and the ring might have even been locked up fast in a chest someplace (some chests, especially the dwarfish ones could take quite a while to pick, pesky tumblers and all.) And, like the job weren't already larger than life, he suspected there was a good deal about the ring he wasn't yet aware of - things that Lady Alfrun was fully in the knowledge of.

"All things considered, I'll do it."

"Either you're especially greedy or especially errant, Son of Hengast," Alfrun wondered aloud, bending forward now to the table between them. Henglaf's attention went back the wooden chest which she drew to herself and onto her lap. Retrieving a tarnished brass key from a pocket within her cloak she unfastened a lock upon the chest and threw back a latch. Dipping back the lid she looked upon the chest's contents with little seeming interest before setting it, open, back onto the table closer to her burglar.

"Errant, perhaps," Henglaf replied, feeling the word qualified, "but not greedy." He pulled the chest to himself and saw therein a bed of freshwater pearls, rubies, and sapphires - many times over the value of a silver and opal-set ring. The container was probably a finger's length deep. "Pragmatic. That, though, I am." Satisfied, he closed fast the chest and locked it up with the key handed him.

"There will be three like chests upon delivery of my brother's ring. There are no constraints laid upon you in how you might retrieve it, only that knowledge of your job, the ring, and of me remain as surreptitious as possible - in fact, I'd prefer this to remain between you and I only. Some souls are more curious than is good for them, and I've occasioned to meet others in league with folk best not reckoned with at all. This is our secret, Henglaf."

"As the lady wishes," said he with a nod. His work was one of a clandestine nature anyways and he hadn't any trouble obliging her. "I will require one fortnight to draw up a working plan and search method. In this space, I will also be about acquiring all the necessary gear and provisions." When he thought on the fore-stated he was immediately overwhelmed with calculations and measures of things he didn't know anything about: distances, time, obstacles. He knew already that even his best and most thorough plans were going to fall short at one point or another (and hopefully not at many.) That was just a caveat of the profession, however. "I will need to speak with you when again you have time, to discuss the ones that took your brother's ring. The more I know about them the easier it may be to find them and in turn your item. Before one can search the right squirrel's nest he must at first find the squirrel."

"I truly hope you have but to climb a tree to find it."


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