The journey had been cold and wet. The small party left their escort from Fraisenhost Castle at the border and followed the road into Balaton. Szigetána Castle stood firm and mighty as they passed by, it's towers spearing into the snow flecked sky. They passed north-east, rounding the Szétszórtű Mountains before turning east to the city of Salgózárd. It was here they took their first real rest since their flight from Styria.
Two days they spent in Salgózárd, keeping mostly to themselves in their inn, barely leaving but to find food or comfort their horses. They saw little of the town and hurried on. On the advice of the inn keeper, they followed a little used trail north to the banks of Győfolyam River where they met a grizzled, old man named István who rented them a small ferry.
The winter wind nipped at them as they drifted down the river, following the slow, lumbering current of the Győfolyam. It took 3 days before they berthed at Győrprém. István's cousin, Iván, met them there and took the ferry back up river. They were here at last, in the veritable capital of the west; the seat of the Álmos von Györgismund. It was midday when they arrived, and the snow had ceased its descent.
They followed the roads and left Győrprém to the west, crossing the stone bridge over the Győfér River. The land on this narrow stretch of land was bleak and icy. Large swathes of snow were piled up in banks by the road, and weighed down the canopies of the trees. The odd cabin, a thin wisp of smoke drifting over it, could be seen far from the road, and small thickets dotted the hills between them. It was mid afternoon when they arrived; the Western Office of Sunstone Security.
A thin, dirt path left the road and threaded along the valley between two hills, heading north. At its end they came to what could only be described as a small fort. A palisade wall had been erected, spanning an area roughly 50 meters across, and 100 deep. Two wooden gates were chained together before them, and on the left of these hung a sign.
The gates were locked and there were no signs of life within, so the party returned to the city and waited. After the better part of a week, there had still been no change at the office, until one day...
* * *
Sarkin was slowly walking down the main road of Győrprém, threading his way through the travellers and labourers that always seemed to be bustling through the town. From the moment the sun crept over the horizon till well after it sunk again behind the mountains, the town was abuzz with work and trade. There was never an empty street or a quiet shop in Győrprém, and it had been difficult for Sarkin to find a tavern where he could read his scrolls in peace. He had eventually settled on a small pub in the south of the city by the docks called The Kékfarkas. It was here that he had just breakfasted before his trip to the Office.
Ever since he arrived, he had checked by the Office daily to see if anyone had returned. It had been over a week since he and the others had fled Styria under the orders of Captain Cataphrykos and he was still coming to terms with the death of Leland. He had only known him for a short time, but that made the circumstances around his murder no less unsettling. The way Krail had described the blue skinned man, Viktor Brandini, had left him with chills down his spine. He shook the thought from his head, and continued on.
It wasn't long before he had left the city and was on the road outside the city again. It practically began with the stone bridge over the Győfér River. It was a wide bridge, with thick stone banisters and regularly spaced lantern posts. The river below flowed sluggishly south to the crossroads of sorts to the east, where the Győfolyam and Atlanok came together before running east towards lake Köröstelek.
Sarkin shook his head. He had made a point of studying the local maps to familiarise himself with his new surroundings and with the land of Balaton, but all the names sounded so ridiculous and unpronounceable to him. Diósümeg Castle, Esztmiklós, Knežište Tower, Sajóskomlós; he sighed and focused on the road instead.
The countryside was pleasant enough. It was cold, but less than though than in Styria. Snow still fell here, but it wasn't quite as deep or abundant as it was further west. And the weather had been fairer too. It was almost relaxing, idling up the path, the chill winter air in his lungs and the warm glow of the sun on his face. He hadn't felt weather like this since his time in Céder. He was still reminiscing on old times when he arrived at the gates of the office. They were wide open.
Curious, he stepped past the gates and into the compound. For the most part, the land between the palisade walls was flattened, muddy earth. Hay was strewn around and wooden planks were laid out to form a rough path. A large, unlit bonfire dominated the centre of the compound, with sawn logs splayed around it as seats. A trough had been set up just to left of the gates, and a single horse stood there, nibbling at the feed within. To the right, and roughly halfway up the side of the eastern wall was a large cabin. It had a thatched roof, rough timber walls, and a cobblestone foundation. A porch ran the length of the building on all sides save the rear, which was pressed directly against the wall itself. An eve gave the porch shelter and extended beyond the cabin itself over what looked like a large terrace or patio.
Sarkin continued into the fort and approached the cabin, stepping up onto the porch. Railings ran around the porch, leaving a gap only for the steps in front of the door. Sarkin reached his hand up to knock when he heard the clang of a hammer on steel ring out to his left. He stepped away from the door and followed the porch north past the cabin to the patio area.
Beyond the corner of the cabin, he found himself standing in what could only be a blacksmiths workshop. The area was practically an extension of the porch itself, and the railings ran the complete length of it. A smelter, a forge, a bellows, an anvil, a workbench, and even a tanning rack were crammed into this workshop. It was small, tightly packed, but very complete.
Standing at the anvil, hammering a horseshoe with a large mallet stood a tall man. His thick, sinewy muscles stood out on his bare arms and chest as he swung. His long blonde hair was tied back in a rough ponytail and his braided beard hung to just below his neck. His blue eyes were fixed intently on the horseshoe before him. As Sarkin watched him work, he noticed that although he was tall he was quite stocky for his size, and the angles of his face seemed a little too coarse and jagged for a human.
He must be Mul, Sarkin thought to himself. He had met half-dwarves from Strørstrlund before and he was sure this man was once too. The way they were built was very nearly human, but to the experienced eyes of a Shapeshifter, it was all too clear.
Sarkin stepped closer and more directly into the man's field of view, but still he remained intent on his work. He cleared his throat with a loud "AHEM" and finally the man looked up from his work.
"GRIPES!" He jumped back a step, "bless me, you just came out of thin air, didn't e'?"
Sarkin stood for a moment, measuring the four feet between him and the Mul and gauging just how this man managed to miss seeing him.
"Erm, my apologies if I startled you," he said.
"Ah, no harm done," the other replied, setting the hammer down on the anvil and offering his hand, "names Jørgen! Jørgen Hammergaard!"
"Sarkin Drexus," he took the Jørgens hand and felt the other crush his in his grip.
"You must be one of the Agents the Capt'n sent here after all that business back in Styria!"
"Right you are," Sarkin replied, cradling his now free and injured hand behind his back.
"A sorry business that was," Jørgen continued, picking up his hammer and getting back to work on the horseshoe, "heard one of the Agents got his head cut clean off. Poor blighter."
"Yes, I'd only worked with him the once, but he seemed a decent man."
"Mustn't a' been too smart to attack the head of the Jackals though."
Jørgen froze and looked up at Sarkin.
"Sorry, I didn't mean... that is, I meant he shoulda known not to... Sorry, that just slipped out."
"That's alright," Sarkin replied hesitantly, "he was warned, apparently. I suppose he just lost his composure in the moment."
Jørgen mumbled an agreement and continued hammering, though now a little faster.
"Jørgen, could you tell me who is in charge of the office here?" Sarkin asked after a few moments of brittle silence, "I expect there's at least a head clerk here to manage the contracts."
"Aye!" Jørgen replied, a little more colour returning to his cheeks, "Aye, that would be me, on both accounts!"
Sarkin stared for a few moments, first at Jørgen and then into the air as he recalled the slender, sarcastic figure of Anton Koffler. He stood there for a few moments, trying to reconcile the differences between these two men, but finding it altogether impossible. Taking his silence as a sign to continue, Jørgen started up again.
"Aye, when Capt'n Ayleron first talked about puttin' up a second office here in th' west, I was the first to volunteer, I was! It took a bit of convincing, since I ain't been more than a caretaker or a blacksmith for the Company so far! But I got there in the end! Capt'n made a bet that I couldn't get these walls up by m'self in less than a month! SHOWED HIM!"
He guffawed and slapped Sarkin hard on the back as he stepped past him with his now finished horseshoe. The jolt brought Sarkin out of his daze and he turned to follow Jørgen.
"Yep, put this all together m'self, I did!" Jørgen continued as he pocketed the horseshoe. He stepped off the porch and made his way north to the end of the compound. "Cabin took a bit longer, o'course, but then, I AM gonna be livin' in it from now on! Had to make it a decent one, you know?"
"Of course," Sarkin mumbled, still processing this new turn of events.
"Yep, it was a good bit of work gettin' that done! Next step is to put up the store house!"
He had stopped in front of a large pile of lumber sitting in the northeast corner. It was mostly raw tree trunks that had been stripped of their branches and roots, and drawn up whole. There seemed to be about a dozen logs altogether in the pile.
"Just brought this batch back with me from my trip to Kivaltföld! Was there to sort out the last bits o' papers with József! That's József Zrinski, the clerk in the main office. He still thinks this whole western office thing is a fool's errand. But he's just a pompous fop!"
He guffawed again and turned to Sarkin, who simply stood there and stared. Jørgen's guffaw petered out and he cleared his throat.
"Well, best get to it then." With that, he grabbed the end of one of the logs and heaved it up from the pile. Sarkin started and stuttered something about giving him a hand, but Jørgen just shook his head. Then, with two quick tugs, he brought the entire log up and onto his shoulder. He spun around and almost knocked Sarkin smack in the face! Fortunately, his reflexes kicked in and he ducked just in time.
"Not much to store, yet, though," Jørgen went on in a strained voice, "but Capt'n says put up a store house, so I put up a store house. Capt'n knows best."
He made his way south towards the horse trough. As they walked, Sarkin stepped up next to him.
"Jørgen, why did the Captain decide to put up the second office here?" he asked.
"Well, that'd be because of the comin' war, o'course! Once the Counts get to fighting each other there'll be plenty'a jobs to go round and we need more Agents in the West! Takes too long to get 'em out here all the way from Kivaltföld!"
"Of course, but I meant, why here just outside of Győrprém?"
"Oh! That'd be because o' old Györgismund! He paid the Capt'n a barrel o' gold to set up outside'a his city! The Györgismund's don't miss any opportunity and I'll wager they can make a lot more money from havin' us nearby!"
He started another of his guffaws, but cut off quite suddenly.
"I shouldn't'a said that." He said, half to himself, "I wasn't s'posed to tell you that."
"It's alright, Jørgen," Sarkin replied, still feeling the vast differences between the other and Anton, and struggling with the notion of who seemed preferable as a clerk.
"Well, as long as ya' keep it to ya' self," Jorgen said, and gave him a knowing look, "Don't want people thinking the Capt'n is open for bribes or anythin'! He was probl'y gonna set up near here anyways! May as well make a bit o' gold while you're at it, eh?"
He laughed again, though less heartily than before. They had reached the feeding trough now, and the horse there looked up and snorted. Jørgen eased the log off his shoulder and set it down nearby. He went to the horse and stoked its nose as it nuzzled against him.
"This 'ere's me horse, Festék! He's strong as an ox, he is!" He gave him a final pat before turning back to Sarkin. "Dumb as a post though! Anyway, I suppose you're hopin' for a job eh? Well, I'm afraid we ain't got nothin' yet. Only been here for 'bout a month or so, and we really only OFFICIALLY opened for business just t'day! But don't you worry, Sarky, we'll have work soon enough!"
He slapped Sarkin on the back again and strode off towards the cabin and his workshop again. Sarkin grimaced at 'Sarky' for a moment before hopping off after him.
"Actually, I was more curious about our lodgings. You see, we were housed in the Office back in Swàlendorf, but we've all had to stay at local inns since we arrived in Győrprém. Are you going to be putting up a barracks for us?"
"Nup!" Jørgen said it so matter-of-factly that it took Sarkin a moment to register it. "The Company doesn't have it in the budget for that, I'm afraid. Plans are to put up the Store House, a proper latrine, and a watch tower. That's it!"
"Er, then where ARE we supposed to stay?"
"Guess you can stay at the inns in town as you are, o'course! But..." Jørgen paused for a moment, and looked at Sarkin with an inquisitive eye, "You see, the Capt'n has only authorised money for those few things, but he said I could build anythin' else I want after that, he did! I just gotta get all the lumber n' stuff m'self though. If y'like, you could always bring me lumber and I'd be happy to help build a barracks or some such!"
"I'll... consider it," Sarkin returned. They had stepped back up onto the porch of the cabin and were heading back to the workshop again. As they did, Sarkin noticed the counter built into the railing on the east side of deck, facing towards the centre of the compound, and it reminded him of Anton's desk back in Swàlendorf.
"For now, I'd best get back to town though."
"Well, you're welcome back anytime, Sarky!" Jørgen turned and offered his hand again, which Sarkin gingerly shook. "Check back in a few days! Bound to be a job by then! And bring the others 'round too! I'd love to meet the whole crew!"
"Certainly," Sarkin replied, clutching his crushed hand once more, "It was a pleasure meeting you Jørgen. I'll see you in a day or two."
Sarkin turned and strode away, the sound of a hammer on steel ringing out behind him as he left the gate of the new Western Office of Sunstone Security. As he did, he tried once more to fathom this change in clerk and what it meant for his future. He didn't feel very comforted.