“We’re looking for a caravan heading for the Redlands,” Crofton tells the young shopkeeper. He holds up the map Ari’s father drew. “Redlands? Do you know of any caravans heading into the Redlands?”
The shopkeeper shakes her head. “I don’t converse with the caravans that pass through. They rarely give me any business worth the amount of trouble I went through to get it. If you want to know about the caravans, ask the caravans.”
“Thanks,” Crofton says.
“Well, another dead end,” Ari says as they walk away. “I wonder if she knows we’ve already tried speaking to the caravans?”
Kemp sighs and his eyes search the crowd. “She does. But that doesn’t mean she knows anything. We should head back to where the caravans set up camp. Maybe we’ll catch one coming in we haven’t spoken to yet.”
“Do we really need to hitch a ride?” Ari asks. “My dad didn’t and he made it through fine.”
“And how many people left with him?” Kemp asks.
“I see your point. Safety in numbers.”
“Plus, if we can prove we’re an asset, they’ll provide us food and water,” Crofton adds. “We won’t have to worry about running out of our current supply.”
“I get it, I get it. Caravan good, wandering into desert alone bad. Now we just have to find one heading into the Redlands.”
“I know one,” a man says from a doorway. He stares at the three with large eyes behind glasses. His arms are thick and scarred. “There’s only one caravan that passes through this town heading for the Redlands.”
“Only one? That makes our chances of it being in town slim,” Crofton says.
Gently hitting him in the stomach, Ari quickly walks up to the man. “But there is one. Where can we find them?”
The man leans against the doorway. “They usually pass through here around this time. I haven’t seen them yet, so you haven’t missed ‘em. Though I can’t say for sure how long it’ll be before they get here. May be a few days, may be a few weeks.”
“Can we afford to wait here a few days?” Kemp asks. He gives Ari a look, asking the question he can’t say out loud. Can they afford to stay in one place too long before those chasing them catch up?
“Where are they before coming here?” Crofton asks. “Is there anyway we could find them coming from another town?”
“I couldn’t tell you that. I only know about the time they pass through here. They don’t usually stop. They send men ahead to collect supplies then when the caravan passes through they pick up the supplies and move on.” The man nods his head further down the street. “The one they buy from the most is Nani Hofster. He sells mostly dried foods, top sellers for caravans, seeing as how they don’t need to be kept fresh and last longer than fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat.”
“Thank you for the information.” Ari reaches into her bag and pulls out a few coins. “Here.”
The man holds his hand up. “Keep it. I just like helping people out when I can. A man saved my life several years back from a band of slave traders. He didn’t have to, most of his group told him to let the traders be, but he couldn’t stand to see them mistreating us. He said he knew what it was like to be treated as a thing rather than a man.” He brushes the scars on his arms. “Since that day, I promised myself I would always help out folks in need no matter how small.”
“Take care of each other. Out there, sometimes that’s all you’ll have,” the man says, heading inside his home.
“All right, let’s find this Nani Hofster,” Crofton says, walking away. Kemp follows, but Ari hesitates a moment staring at the man’s home. She leaves a small bag of coins on the doorstep before following the others.
Nani Hofster’s shop is located near the eastern edge of the town. The main building houses most of the produce, but a small stand built in front of the large window shows a selection of dried meats, fruits, vegetables, and a number of different herbs. The scents filling the air are overwhelming at first, but soon become an intoxicating mix of new smells.
A small boy sits on a stool next to the stand, holding a splintered stick in one hand and throwing small stones with the other against the stone walkway. As the group approaches, the boy glances up. He takes them in quickly then lowers his eyes back to his small activity.
“We’re looking for Nani Hofster?” Kemp asks. “This is his shop, right?”
“Maybe. Why you looking for him? I’m not good enough to do business with?” the boy says, slamming a stone against the walkway.
“We’re not here to do business. We have some questions for Nani about the caravan that travels through the Redlands,” Crofton says, eyeing the boy with an annoyed expression. “Are you even old enough to be in charge of any business?”
The boy stops throwing the stones and glares at Crofton. “Are you even useful enough without being able to use any magic?”
Crofton’s face pales and his lips become thin lines. He takes a threating step towards the boy. “What’d you say, you little shit?”
Placing her hand across Crofton’s chest, Ari steps between him and the boy. “Please don’t tick off my friend. If we buy something from you, will you tell us where Nani Hofster is? Or should we just go inside and take a look at the rest of what you’re offering?”
Eyeing Ari with an intrigued expression, the boy stands and walks up to her. He places the splintered stick on her shoulder. “There’s nothing inside for you. You want Nani you gotta pass my test.”
“Now there’s a test? This kid’s messing with us. Let’s just go. I’m sure there’s someone else we can talk to.” Crofton knocks the stick off of Ari’s shoulder.
Kemp groans. “You already know this is the closest we’ve gotten to a lead on any caravan heading for the Redlands. I’m tired of talking to people who don’t know anything.”
The boy shoots an annoyed look at the two men. “I’ll only talk to her and since you two won’t shut up, we’ll do the test inside and you can stay out here.”
“Absolutely not!” Crofton seethes.
“Crofton, shut the hell up,” Ari says. “Stay out here with Kemp and keep an eye out for anyone who may look like part of a caravan or…looking for trouble. I won’t be long.”
Before Crofton or Kemp can argue, Ari takes the boy by the arm and drags him into the shop. She shuts the door behind her and throws the boy to the center of the room. “Do you always insult your customers?”
“You gonna tell my mother?” the boy asks, tapping the stick against his leg.
“That would be pointless since you’re not a child, at least, not on the inside. I’m assuming you’re Nani?” Ari places her bag on the nearby counter. She faces the boy and crosses her arms over her chest. “Why the disguise?”
“Who says it’s a disguise? Kids can be shop owners. Maybe I’m mature for my age.”
“Whatever, if you don’t want to tell me why that’s your business. You know about the caravan heading for the Redlands and when they’ll be passing through this town again.”
“Maybe, why specifically do you need a caravan heading through the Redlands?”
“That’s my business.”
The boy, Nani, plays with the stones in his other hand. The stick tapping his leg slows as his thoughts race and his eyes move slowly over Ari. “Does it have anything to do with the recent attack on Kellahn?”
Ari keeps her expression guarded. “What’ve you heard about the attack?”
“A large number of magic users died during that attack. They seemed to have been targeting them specifically.” Nani steps closer to Ari. “And I heard we lost one of our legendary mages. A Life Healer named Meah. Did you know her?”
“Everyone in Kellahn knew her.”
“Mm, I imagine they did, but how about you? What was your relationship with her?”
“Is this part of your test? Asking questions you already know the answer to?” Ari feels a thin layer of her air magic wrapping around her.
“You’ve already passed the test. I’m only being courteous by asking questions. It’s this strange thing called communication, something you and those two outside seem to lack.”
“We communicate fine.”
Nani leans against a table. “Is that why you don’t know Kemp’s village was destroyed by the same group that attacked your city?”