The painted wagon rattled down the overgrown path that served for roads in that part of the world, moaning and shambling like a dead thing newly returned to life. Old, weathered ruts traced dark tracks across the frozen road, deep as the lines on a hag’s face. Ice crackled under wheel. Naked, emaciated trees crowded the path, skeletal limbs dragging across the wagon’s roof and scratching at the faded words written along the sides in gold – Marten the Magnificient’s Traveling Emporium.
Marten sat hunched under the roof’s lip, a lean man wrapped in a thin blanket, the reins limp in his gloved hand. A faded blue scarf snaked out from the neck of his overcoat, wrapping around his ears and nose and mouth. Long, dark hair streaked with white spilled out from under the top hat, falling into his eyes and brushing his shoulders.
Gods, but it was cold. Cold enough to kill, were a man not cautious. Irrisen was not a place to travel lightly, cursed as it was. But one didn’t sell useless trinkets and empty cures as long as Marten had without a head chock full of caution. Marten knew the stories of Irrisen and had thought himself prepared, but the unrelentingly vicious cold had taken him by surprise. At least his feet were warm. Baron, his old dog, laid coiled across his boots like a pile of shaggy furs.
The pony trudged on, head bent to the task, breath billowing out in short gusts. The world was still save the stomp of hooves and the clatter of the wagon. Inside, vials gently clinked together rhythmically.
He came upon the homesteads furthest from Hodgersville as morning gave way to afternoon. Small, windowless mounds sunk partway into the ground, with a rounded roof of snow and ice. A stone chimney poked toward the sky like a giant’s stubby finger. Tall, gated fences encircled each home. He thought to hail on the first homes, but no smoke curled from the chimneys.
They put several dozen houses behind them before encountering one with signs of life. Smoke curled from the chimney, hanging over the squat structure like a gray cloud.
The wagon topped a rise. The land fell away sharply on the other side, revealing a broad, tree-clogged valley shrouded in shifting mist. The road coiled through the gray trees like a great white serpent. A handful of buildings squat in the clearing at the bottom. Hodgersville.
Marten scratched the dog’s head. “We made it, old boy.”
Baron wagged his tail and barked in agreement.
They took the descent slowly, mindful of the ice underfoot. Jingling and clattering, the wagon drew many a folk out their door for a look. Frowning severely, arms crossed over chests, they watched him pass in silence. Most troubling were the children, sullen little things with no bright, wondering smile to greet him, no rush of little feet to pace him as he made his way into town.
Carefully adjusting his top hat, Marten stood, smiling and waving. “Hiyo, there. Marten the Magnificent, I be. Magic and wonder be my business. Come one and all, great and small. Have a look inside me wagon and be astonished.”
A small boy, no older than six, stood outside a gate as Marten bounced past. He was dressed in faded rags, a scrap of skin visible through the tangled cloth about his face. His eyes – pale and blue – regarded Marten with something very like suspicion.
“Whoa,” Marten said, pulling back on the reins. The pony obliged and the wagon slid to a stop. Ducking into the wagon’s cramped interior, Marten fumbled around for a moment before returning with a handful of firecrackers. “Ever seen an ear-snapper, boy?”
The boy stood on his tip-toes and eyed the round objects sitting in Marten’s hand.
“Behold.” Marten flung a firecracker to the ground. It erupted into an echoing crackle of sound, spitting thin yellow lights a dozen feet into the sky. The boy watched the lights arc back toward the ground and fade away.
“Wonderful, isn’t it?” Marten leaned down, his hand outstretched. “Take them. Share with your friends. Go on, it’s fine.”
The boy wavered on his feet. And then his hands darted out, scooping up the firecrackers. Clutching them to his chest, saying nothing, he watched as Marten resumed the trek down toward town.
Marten smiled and waved at the onlookers, but none did so much as raise a hand in greeting. He’d called upon towns like this before, tiny places on the edge, its peoples isolated and unaccustomed to visitors. They’d be quiet and suspicious, most like. Even rude, perhaps, until Marten determined the tune they longed to hear. Then they’d come, aye, friendly as you can believe, and eager to part with fists of coin.
By the time Marten opened the rear door of his wagon, a healthy crowd had gathered. They watched silently as he introduced his first few products. It wasn’t that they were skeptical of his claims – that he was used to, had rehearsed for, and could deal with. This crowd didn’t seem to have the foresight to even question or wonder about what he said his products could do. His words were wind, passing over them but leaving them untouched.
Unnerved, Martin swerved off his careful script. “This potion here will stop a charging bull at fifty paces. And this tiny vial will set you to flying, free as a bird.” The wood trinket he’d clumsily carved while bored one night, half-done and unpainted, became a talisman to see dead kin. The old pitted dagger he used to cut meat, now the fabled hunting knife of the dwarven King Longbeard, guaranteed to always strike true. There were no grumbles of disbelief, no sighs of wonder. He’d have welcomed a heckler just to get some reaction to respond to.
They heard him out, and once he had no more to say, they stumbled back toward home. Marten watched them go in disbelief.
He set to rapidly repack the wagon. There was daylight enough yet to see some miles, and he meant to put Hodgersville long behind him. He hoped all the towns of Irrisen were not like this, or this was doomed to be a long, cold, fruitless trip.
“Excuse me.” Marten jumped. He turned to find an attractive woman standing behind him. She wore a tight dress with a plunging neckline and seemed unmindful of the cold.
“I was just wondering… you’re not leaving yet, are you? After all, you’ve only just arrived. You are the most interesting person to come to Hodgersville in many a moon.” She smiled, a blush creeping into her cheeks.
“Truly? Your town has a strange way of showing excitement.” His eyes flicked toward the mass tottering back to their homesteads.
“Many are mistrustful of strangers. They may come around with time.”
Marten snorted and returned to his work. “I do not intend to wait for the thaw.”
A hand snaked around his waist, turning him about. She planted a kiss on his lips, firm and wet. Marten’s arms drew her closer. Grinding against him, moaning under his mouth. She trembled.
They were both panting when Marten finally pulled his lips away. Taking his hand, she led him toward the inn.