“Ask directions?” Scoffed Tails. “No real man asks directions!” Sarcasm drenched his voice like the mud drenching his boots.
“Then its a relief you are still a child Tails,” Wolfe reminded. “You can do the asking for us!”
The three of them exited the alleyways onto the main street running parallel with the River. Fitting to its name, the Crimson River might well be called the lifeblood of Malnore, supplying the city with both water and trade.
Naturally then the cobble street beside it was both wider and better kept than streets elsewhere in the city. Of course the crowds expanded proportionally too.
Folks pushed and shoved; kids screamed and hollered.
Occasionally caravan guards could be seen clearing paths for cattle-pulled wagons bearing wheat, flax, salt, and various other valuables. Rarer still, if one paid close attention, children might be spotted darting toward the wagons and pocketing some of the ingredients before blending back into the crowd.
“We should go for a swim later,” cried Tails over the ambiance of shuffling feet.
They stuck to the bank of the road closest to the alleyways and away from the water— the less busy side. The River could be neither seen nor heard from here.
“If we have time,” Wolfe shouted.
The street swayed and turned in accordance to its River guide. Within a few intersections they happened across an old man with a hunched back collapsed against a soot wall begging loudly.
“Just a penny, please!” He sobbed to deaf ears. “Any job! Just a penny please!” His stomach bowed in against his rib cage testifying to his desperation. A cloth bag, one formerly used to hold flour, covered him— a hole cut out for his arms and head. A string held it tight around his waist barely maintaining his modesty.
Wolfe steered them towards the beggar.
“Just a penny, please! I’ll do anything!” The man continued on, not registering their approach until their shadows overlapped his. He glanced upwards, dreadful eyes widening and back straightening in shock, then bent back over raising his arms to cover his head.
“No!” He wept. “Don’t beat me. Not again.” His face scrunched up in fear and though he appeared to be crying, no tears flowed. “Don’t beat me—”
“Relax,” Wolfe interrupted the beggar’s moaning, “we aren’t here to hurt you.” He knelt down before the man, staining his britches black, leaving the beggar plenty of breathing space between them.
The man looked Wolfe in the eyes, hope flaring. “You aren’t going to chase me from this corner then?” He questioned inquisitively from between his protective arms though skepticism still traced his features.
“Of course not. You were saying earlier that you’d help anyone for a penny. Is this true?” Wolfe felt sorry for him.
The beggar dropped his arms to his sides and lifted his back up again, adopting what he deemed a rather business-like posture. “Work? Yes, work!” His eyes glittered. “What would you have me do?” He asked with a voice like a child’s. “Work, work!” He whispered to his feet.
Wolfe grinned at his enthusiasm and showed the beggar the mission sheet. “Do you know where this abandoned flour mill is located? It shouldn’t be too far from here…” Wolfe peeked back at the road as if to search its course, but the flood of individuals blocked his sight.
“Yes, yes,” the beggar said, “work, work.” He snatched the sheet from Wolfe’s fingers, much to the latter’s surprise, and brought the paper to his nose, breathing in deeply. “Flour mill?” He asked tilting his head to the side. “But this is paper?” He whispered to his feet.
“Do you know where this mill is?” Repeated Wolfe with a sigh.
The beggar gazed into Wolfe’s murky eyes and dropped the paper to the floor. He shuffled further away from them and pointed his thin arm downriver. “Whirly twirly that way.” He continued shuffling backwards until he almost disappeared into the shadows.
“That so?” Asked Wolfe raising his voice. “Then here’s your penny!” He flicked it through the air and it clattered against the stone floor besides the man. “Thanks!”
The man jumped atop the coin like a famished beast eagerly seizing his prey in both hands. Then he bit it hard with his ghastly yellow teeth, or what remained of them, and fled.
“Well that was weird,” summarized a shocked Tails. “I’m glad I’m not made of bronze.”
Ort nodded. “That man feels dangerous.”
“Eh, whatever.” Wolfe dusted off his knees, snatched the paper from the ground, and stepped back onto the road. “You think a man as scared as him could assault somebody?”
“A crazy man can do many things,” responded Ort contemplatively.
“Then it’s a good thing we paid him!” Wolfe grinned, “Now let’s get going!”
“We’re just going to trust him?” Quizzed Tails following behind. “He hardly seemed to understand what we were asking…”
“We hardly have anything else to go on here, so yes. We will trust him. Besides, could a man who calls a watermill a ‘whirly twirly’ be lying?”
“Let’s ask somebody else. They’re desperate for coin out here.”
“Relax you two. If you can’t trust some deranged maniac, then just trust me… What’s the worst that can happen anyways?” Wolfe shrugged. “We turn around and our feet get sore?”
“Fair enough,” groaned Tails, “But if we’re doing this for you, surely you can go swimming for me.” Tails’s signature smile reappeared.
Wolfe froze for a moment looking at him— “You couldn’t have planned this could you have? Me owing you a favor?”
“Hmmm? Of course not!”
Wolfe sighed deeply and then breathed in. Manure, he thought. “We should have asked that man how far it was… Oh well.”
They wiggled across the crowds onto the river side of the street. A fair leap from here would land, or perhaps sink, them in the water. Some barges floated upriver pushed against the current by unfortunate souls prodding the ground with long poles.
Properties lined the opposite shore, a disproportionate amount of them still intact.
“Is that a bridge there?” Squinted Wolfe. A blur crossed the waters up ahead though it was too far away to make it out clearly. If the mill were to be around here, it would be on the other side.
“I think so,” replied Tails while zigzagging.
The blur solidified into a solid stone construct of rather impressive architecture, especially considering the desolate fields around them. The bridge curved semi-circularly over the waters made up of numerous carved trapezoidal stones. No support pillars invaded the River so as not to block the barges below. The bridge appeared designed for longevity.
As they approached the base of the bridge the horde of people became a whirlpool of chaos. Tails quickly tucked behind Ort who cleared a path for him.
“Thanks,” Tails told him.
“No problem,” Ort replied.
The bridge stones were massive and undoubtably very heavy. It’s a wonder the shore supported their combined weight, but it did so solidly. The dull thud of feet against stone thundered through the air.
Quickly the three of them crossed onto the other shoreline. Here the crowds thinned out greatly, much to their relief, though they still remained to some degree. Nonetheless, they could now walk freely again.
“So we’re just going this way until we run into some sort of mill?” Tails asked absentmindedly watching the surroundings. He didn’t care regardless— they would get there eventually he knew.
“Yep,” Wolfe replied in short.
They continued on, their pace swift with a child’s eagerness, passing numerous others who dawdled about drenched in sweat. The sun had since reached its peak and begun lowering in sky. The hottest part the day. No birds flew overhead.
At times they walked in silence and others Tails would find a rock to kick along, but soon enough they found a mill with its waterwheel turning.
Wolfe paced up to its front door, polished wood, and knocked. “Anyone there?” He yelled. Earlier when the beggar had dropped his quest sheet, the address had been blotted out leaving Wolfe unsure if this was indeed the correct building. Not that it mattered much, this mill was missing its address.
Before the building lay an empty courtyard separated from the street by a flimsy fence. The mill itself appeared dated, possessing two floors the lower of which built by stone, the upper by lumber. The stone base likely kept the building from burning down a few years ago.
“Hello!” Screamed Wolfe again. They waited for a few seconds…
“We’re coming in,” he shouted when no response came. He reached towards the door handle confidently— then the door swung open on its own, screeching on its hinges.
Wolfe leapt back in surprise.
“Who are you?” Questioned the muscular man who appeared inside the door frame. “What do you want?” He continued. The man looked impatient though not angered. Nonetheless, his size and demeanor felt threatening; his arms crossed, eyes looking down upon them.
Wolfe blurted, “Sorry!” He lowered his head slightly in apology. “We are from the Adventurer’s Guild,” he explained, “and we’re on a quest to clean out an abandoned flour mill in this area… We thought this might be it.”
“I see,” the man nodded understandingly, “but this mill is not abandoned, just quiet today as you can see.”
Wolfe flinched subtly when the man lowered his hands to his sides. Recovering he asked, “Do you know where our flour mill is, by chance?”
The man’s head bobbed, “Not by chance, but yes I do.” He cranked his head to the side, towards downriver the direction they had been previously traveling in. “It’s that way a few paces. The next mill over. Looks much like this one.”
“Thank you,” Wolfe said, “We’ll be going now.”
“Fair well then.” The man turned and closed the door behind him, slamming it shut, without further ado.
“Told you, didn’t I?” Said Wolfe spinning about, “That crazy beggar was telling the truth! You really need to trust me more you know… My instincts are never wrong!”
“Blind luck,” replied Tails merrily. “Odds were fifty-fifty.”
“Perhaps so,” Wolfe grinned, “but he was still correct!”
Wolfe promptly guided them back onto the road and proceeded down its course until they happened across the next mill. In total the journey from the Adventurer’s Guild to here lasted most of two hours. Plenty of sunlight left in the day.
The disposed of flour mill was designed exactly like the last one with two levels: one of stone, one of plank. There was even the same fence in front of the courtyard, though much of it was knocked down. They must have been built around the same time period.
“Should be this one then,” said Wolfe, “if that man wasn’t lying.”
He stepped up to the door, unpolished and aged, and shoved on it. The door groaned under the weight but this time remained steadfast, blocked by something from the inside though the knob itself was unlocked. They could probably slice through the door, as rotten as it was, though Wolfe preferred not to use his blade in such a manner.
“Hey Tails! Is there another way in?” He asked.
Obediently Tails wandered around the side looking for a secondary door. The mill was rather large in size, in both depth and width. The wooden upper half of the building was decrepit and there was a hole dug beneath the back wall.
“Yes,” Tails shouted, “A large entry over here! A bay door!” He attempted to lift the door open but failed. “Appears to be locked.”
Wolfe and Ort walked around the corner over to him.
“For loading and unloading things, huh?” Wolfe deduced. “Course they can’t just make it easy on us and keep things unlocked.”
“Of course,” Tails agreed, “and there’s another special entrance just for you Wolfe! Right over here! Come one, come all!” Tails showed them behind the building, pointing to the rodent’s tunnel.
“Think you could fit?” Tails asked while scratching his head as if calculating.
“I certainly couldn’t, but you might! Shall we try?” Wolfe asked amidst stepping behind Tails to block his retreat and grabbing firmly onto Tails’s bony shoulders. Wolfe whispered into his ear with a maniacal grin, “You are the smallest of us after all.”
“No, no!” Tails wept, “I’m good, I’m good. But shouldn’t we block this hole with something to prevent animals from going in and out?” He tried to change the subject.
“I suppose it couldn’t hurt.” Wolfe released Tails and then bent down and plucked up a few stones from the ground around him and tossed them carelessly into the hole.
After a few moments he stood back up. “I’d like to think that’d be enough.” He shrugged then turned to Tails who had backed away from him, “Yes?”
Tails pushed some mud into the hole then nodded. “Good enough.”
“No other door?” Wolfe asked hopeful.
“…Looks like we’re going to have to break in…” Wolfe breathed out then took a deep breath in and repeated, calming himself. “Let’s just hope this is the right mill this time.” He chuckled. “Never thought Adventuring would involve breaking into buildings. I almost feel like a thief.”
“I’m sure things will get better from here!” Tails said optimistically.
“It’s not like it can get any worse after all,” Wolfe replied pessimistically.
Tails choose to overlook his comment. “The lock on the bay door sounded rusty.” He recommended. “If both you and Ort lifted at the same time, you might be able to break it open.”
“Alright,” Wolfe agreed, “Worth a shot!”
They strode over to it and both got into position, each firmly holding a handle on the door.
“Ready?” Tails asked supervising them.
They nodded in affirmation.
Tails began a count down— “Three, two, one… Now!” He yelled and they tugged. A sharp clanking sound boomed on the other side of the door but the door remained steadfast.
“Aaannd, failed.” Announced Wolfe. “It’s not budging. You’re right the lock is rusty but the front door will be easier.”
“Worth a shot,” Tails told him.
Ort patted Tails on the back before following Wolfe around front. This time he tried the door and leaned against it with all his might. The door wanted to move, but couldn’t.
“How do we do this?” Ort asked calmly.
“Let’s give it one big shove,” Wolfe rolled his shoulder around and acted out the part, fake ramming his side against door. “Just like that, except, well, you know…”
Ort nodded. “Alright.” He positioned himself and glanced back to the watching Tails. “Begin the countdown.”
“Yes sir!” He said. “Three, two, one… Now!”