The chime of a wind-beaten bell rang softly through the dense smog, which clung to the Mistweave Canal’s surface. A boat, narrow and flat in shape, silently skimmed the shallow waters; helmed by a figure muffled under a thick cloak which draped his body and hooded his face, shielding him from the cold dead air. He stood at the rear of the boat, posed dourly under an oil lit lantern which swayed back and forth from a standing pole. Beside it, hung a salt-crusted bell made of old and worn cast iron, which chimed occasionally while the cloaked figure propelled the boat along by pushing against the riverbed with a long wooden pole held firmly in his grasp.
He stared into the gloomy abyss, unable discern anything beyond the edges of his boat—no shadows or whispers in the dark penetrated the smog, and he navigated the ever-winding waterways by memory alone.
A light slowly emerged in the distance. It was small at first, beginning as a hazy globule that shone with an amber glow filtered through a veil of grey. Then, as he neared closer, a wooden pier came into view. It harshly creaked in rhythm to the surging waters below, while the globule of light bobbed along its surface and towards to boat until it revealed itself to be a lantern, carried by a thin but lithe figured lad named Cooper, who waited impatiently at the edge of the pier.
“It reeks out here, Mister Syn!” Cooper called out, placing his lantern at his feet while the prevailing winds tousled his perpetually messy hair.
“Aye!” Syn replied, “These canals will never run dry for there will always be someone to piss in them.” Syn tossed a rope out onto the pier and asked, “Are they feeding you up there? “You look like you haven’t seen a meal in days.”
“Food is plenty,” Cooper replied, “It’s the drink we’re lacking.” He deftly knotted the rope to a sturdy cleat, then gave it a good hard tug before helping Syn lay down a thin sheet of wood between the boat and the pier.
“What’s this month’s shipment?” Cooper asked.
“Three-dozen kegs,” Syn answered, pulling back a leather tarp that lay draped over the open deck of the boat, revealing multiple rows of large and hefty barrels.
Each one was meticulously lined side by side and they were uniformly made with thick but well-beaten wood; dented and scuffed from years of use and held in place by bands of metal hoops, each one fastened into the wood with thick rivets that leaked an orange rust. Although, regardless of their appearance, they appeared to be well cared for—all things considering.
“What are you on about, three-dozen kegs?” Cooper exclaimed, “That’s nearly a year’s supply!”
“A cold wind is coming, Cooper,” Syn retorted, “And she’s coming in quick and harsh,” his voice was low and pensive. His large cloak deflated and consumed him as he took a seat on a small stool at his side; and he remained still as the coarse fabric outlined his skeletal figure. “I doubt these old joints could cope,” Syn continued, rubbing his knee with his gloved hand, “This should be ample enough to wait her out.”
“You speak as if death awaits us all,” Cooper mocked as he made his way towards the keg closest to him.
Syn shrugged his shoulders, “Does it not?”
“Aye,” Cooper replied, sizing up the keg and prepping himself for the lift, “Perhaps it does, so I guess I should get these inside before we all keel over. Wouldn’t want them going bad now, would we?”
Cooper clapped his hands and rubbed them together while exhaling a deep breath—then, he bent his knees, straightened his back, and shuffled closer while wrapping his arms around the coarse wood of the keg. Another deep breath, and he braced himself… and heaved.
At first, the keg refused to budge as Cooper strained against it. It was unusually heavy, Cooper thought, impossibly so. But he continued regardless, clenching his teeth while throwing all his strength into his back; and in a show of Atlasian might, he hoisted the keg up off the ground.
He was successful. But, of course, he was always successful; and he will continue to be successful for the many more kegs to come—the idea, of which, would burden most men more than any keg they could carry; and to them, to live a life like that would be an eternal condemnation… but for Cooper, it was a salvation.
Although, when he settled the keg onto the pier, while breathing a sigh of relief, and turned to see the thirty-five remaining kegs on the boat, his position on that matter began to waiver.
Syn watched as Cooper made his way to the next keg, and then asked him, “Would you like some help?”
“Can you help?” Cooper replied, doubtfully, “With your joints being the way that they are, that is,” he continued, hauling the second keg off the boat.
Syn let out a soft chuckle, “Have you ever stopped to question, Coop, who loads the kegs onto the boat in the first place?”
“You mistake me, Mister Syn,” Cooper squeezed through gritted teeth, barely getting a breath in under the weight of the keg. He plopped it onto the pier and took a moments respite, leaning cross-armed against the hefty barrel. “I have wondered many things about you,” he continued, “I just dare not question them. For example, in all these years, not once have I lay witness your face.”
“Is that a fact?” Syn mused. He lowered his head and gently tugged at the harsh dark fabric that hung over his face, “Will you do me the honour of lifting back my hood then?”
“No. I don’t think I will. At this point, I prefer the mystery.”
“I see,” Syn half-spoke. Cooper was sure he could hear a smile in his voice.
Cooper always found that being in Syn’s presence caused a strange feeling to stir within himself; a feeling of deep, unbridled curiosity—and terror. There was always a wealth of knowledge to Syn’s words—and plentiful advice to mine from their meaning, of course; but he could never shake that drone of danger that permeates his gut while in his company.
Syn, the carrier of bad ale and forbidden knowledge. Cooper scoffed at ridiculousness of it, but then quickly rid himself of any more thoughts on the matter, as he was still not entirely sure if Syn could read his mind or not—and most likely not, he determined long ago, but Cooper did not want to risk inflating Syn’s ego any further, just in case. Instead, Cooper passed time with thoughts of rest as he hauled the kegs, one by one, off from the boat and onto the pier, where he then stacked them in two’s and three’s atop of each other. Once finished, he turned to see Syn tapping his fingers against his palm in a manner that would make any aristocrat envious.
“Very good, very good, bravo!” Syn called out, rolling his r’s, “Now, regarding payment…”
“Oh, yes. Of course.” Cooper reached for a small, but well stuffed, leather pouch that hung from his belt and tossed it towards Syn. “Thirty golds worth of copper coins, as per usual,” he said, “The rest will be settled on your next delivery, Mister Syn.”
Cooper paused and then pondered with a face that displayed, quite obviously, an internal struggle—a battle between curiosity and wilful ignorance—but eventually, curiosity won and he asked, “Mister Syn… why copper? Surely gold would less cumbersome.”
“Ah, this you allow yourself to question,” Syn offered a quick peek into the pouch before slipping it away, deep into his loosely hanging sleeve where it remained, out of sight. “If you must know, I simply enjoy the textile feel of copper more so than that of silver or gold… Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
“Not in a way that it should,” Cooper replied, annoyed at himself for asking and frustrated at the series of question that are now unravelling inside of his head.
“A pity, then,” Syn reeled in the rope that Cooper had just loosened from the cleat. He then, first taking hold of his punt, used it to push off from the pier and nudge his boat outwards where it then drifted to the centre of the Mistweave Canal.
“I shall be off,” Syn called out, “Keep yourself safe Cooper… Strange things are prowling the nights of Roanoke city.” Cooper had a feeling that Syn was not, as one would easily assume, talking about himself.
“Oh, and before I forget—” Syn reached into his other sleeve and pulled out from within a loaf of bread bundled in strips of cloth, and tossed it towards Cooper who caught it with ease, “—You look like you need it more than I ever will,” Syn finished, before disappearing into the thick smog and vanishing out of sight.
Cooper unravelled the loaf from its swab and gave it a good sniff. It did not smell poisoned, he thought, but he determined that if Syn wanted him dead—he would already be so and Syn would have done so in a much more creative fashion.
Cooper took a bite from the slightly stale crust and focused his gaze further down the pier; watching as the smog slowly thinned to reveal a series of rickety wooden stairs. The perennial sea mist left them crusted and damp with age—and mildewed planks that served as steps bowed and helmed to the railings at an angle, while haphazardly connected by series of wooden platforms that snaked and climbed over themselves, upwards and towards a large building raised high over the Mistweave Canal, supported by an array of thick wooden stumps at its base, which they stood, defiantly, in the waters.
The building, commonly referred to as the ‘Drunkard’s Colic’, was a well-built tavern made to stand the test of time, but time has since run out and it began to show its age—like a defiant elder, far past their prime but too bitter to let go—it remained firm against the elements and homed those who commonly drift along the currents of the city streets, allowing for a night of respite and solace to be found at the bottom of a glass.
There was a murmur of banter and shanties that echoed out from the tavern and through the stiff air, providing a lull of melody to the gentle lapping of waves and the elongated creaks from the shifting pier—an alluring atmosphere for all passer-by’s, Cooper was sure, but he instead let out a deep sigh of resignation after finishing his loaf and stood, and readied himself for the journey up the spiralling stairs where he will then haul kegs from the pier and up to the tavern. A gruelling task, no doubt, but it was his task.« Loot Mule – Prologue Loot Mule – 02 »