Pavel’s water had just begun boiling as a figure draped in tattered furs and dingy cloth turned the corner. Putting a pinch of tealeaf in his cup, he left it to steep and rose to meet the traveler.
Torches lining the guard hut cast gaunt shadows that bent toward the disheveled visitor stood in front of an equally dilapidated wagon.
“Identify yourself,” Pavel said, “and your intended destination.” Visitors were infrequent enough to warrant a suspicious approach.
A decrepit yet feminine voice croaked out from under the vagabond’s low-sitting cowl. “I am but a merchant peddling for a pittance,” she said. “You may browse my wares. Please let me know if you find anything of interest… everything has its price.”
After searching through the clutter of knickknacks stashed in the creaky-wheeled wagon, Pavel could all but taste the cup of tea he left steeping in the gatehouse. “And what do you carry on your person?”
“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it. Not to say it will be yours, no. It is my pocket after all,” she rambled. “Instead I am offering you a moment to escape from the lint-ridden predictability affixed to your own hips, to stretch your mind — and in turn your fingers — in an attempt to reach for that which you never knew to seek.” The contours of the old woman’s ancient visage morphed into a wry grin.
How she managed to ascend the craggy path all the way to the Summit Gates, towing a cart full of trinkets and elixirs no less, was of little concern to Pavel. The chill of winter rendered his breath visible as the midnight’s watchman sighed.
“Those seeking passage into this realm must declare all of their possessions prior to passing into the mountain,” he said. “That includes personal effects.” Border crossings were rare this late into the winter, even more so this late at night. The woman’s antics meant he must remain away from his post’s hearth long enough to feel the sting of the howling wind. “Reluctance will be regarded as hostility.”
“I am possessed by nothing if not the unknown,” she replied. “And equally so I possess the very same. To declare it mine and mine alone would be far from the truth. Indeed this pocket was stitched into existence by the very hands you’d threaten to cuff, yet its contents are not for me to divulge rather it is for you to construe.” The traveling merchant cocked her head inquisitively. “Does the seashell betray the hermit within, or does one expose the crab’s existence by coaxing it out?”
“Riddles are for idle fools who fancy themselves clever. If you are concealing a crustacean, I must confiscate it immediately,” he said. “Smuggling exotic beasts into the realm of his majesty, Eldritch Goldspore the Spectacular, is strictly prohibited.” As any good soldier would, the young man’s chainmail-clad fist pounded twice against his breastplate at the mention of the mountain’s sovereign.
“And you are no fool, of course,” she said, chuckling. “My person is void of contraband, and if you must verify this please do so with haste. I am loathe to endure these elements for much longer.”
“As soon as I know this to be true you may proceed.” The guard dug into the various satchels and pouches concealed under the woman’s patchwork of furs. He documented every homeopathic remedy and ritualistic bauble found. While such spirituality was frowned upon in the Summit Kingdom, Pavel found nothing prohibited. All that was left to inspect was the pocket that lined the inside of her shawl.
Reaching for the merchant’s last compartment, Pavel’s figure stretched thinner than the flickering shadows. His hand was drawn to the pocket even after he attempted to resist its pull. In an instant the torches were snuffed out.
The old woman, now alone, gathered her belongings and continued onward.