The humidity was stifling in the council longhouse. The twenty elders, with more than a thousand years stretching between them, insisted on a roaring fire - something about old bones. The thickened air was added pressure a sweating Kuruk could do without. It was a hard room to get heard in but Kuruk was confident in what he had to say. He clung to that fact like his buckskin stuck to his skin.
Since birth, he'd been earmarked for a council role, but this was his first oral presentation. His first impression and he was all too aware you only got one of those. He could already feel the elders' scrutiny scuttling across his skin. Look at them, leaning forward on their logs, like a murder of crows wishing mischief. He wiped his forehead with quivering fingers, flicking droplets down to the tamped-dirt floor and stalked into the centre of the circle.
In traditional Ankan oratory style, Kuruk began his proposal by outlining obvious facts everybody knew and agreed upon. Not only for form's sake, it was politeness masking practicality. Setting up the parameters of a discussion before it descended into argument. This way proceedings stayed relatively focussed.
“Normally we collect salt at Lake N'dor then send caravans south, through Norwood, to Seatoun or Southwell. Or east to Rothswell and once a year west to Kortar.”
“We also sell at a reduced price to passing caravans going in those same directions, because it saves us the bother.”
Ankan braves didn't care for caravanning at all. To an Ankan, caravans were boring, lonely, frustrating and demeaning. This disdain was the driving force for Kuruk's raft of changes.
"The only difference between city dwellers and orcs is we’re allowed to kill orcs." he joked.
So far so good. He took a deep breath, and announced his first and most obvious proposal. His planned cancellation of the old Rothswell caravan. As expected there was a round of groans.
"Brilliant, why hadn't I thought of that!" someone mumbled.
Hanska held up his hand, and everyone quieted so Kuruk could continue. He hadn't been shouted down, thanks to his father, so he cut straight to the heart of it.
"The old return journey route from N'dor to Rothswell took up to two weeks. Now thanks to the tunnel the trip will take two or three days leaving from Tahlata."
An obvious benefit but Kuruk had more. Much more...
"Also we have been wasting half of our trips," he announced. "Our warriors return with trinkets and baubles, but empty carts - that's not clever! It's an opportunity missed."
That got them thinking.
"In future, we should spend the bulk of our salt profits where prices are cheapest, which is clearly Kortar," he said. "A list will be made of all the tribe's needs and the best barterers in Perugian will be sent to Kortar with a caravan - twice a year if needs be."
Whispers without commitment or conviction whirled around the longhouse borne on the elders hot air.
"We should buy nothing but basic supplies in Norwood. And nothing at all in Seatoun, Southwell or Rothswell, those three are too expensive because they are at the end of the trade-line. Those towns suck hind tit and have nothing to offer us we can't get for half the price elsewhere."
Now he had everyone's attention. Good because here was one of his key points.
"In fact, I suggest we cancel the Seatoun and Southwell caravans as well, stopping short at Norwood. letting them distribute where they see fit. We were wasting our time and money, supplying them. Making much more effort, but charging the same price in every town!"
"That's true!" They were nodding now.
"Also, from now on, our warriors returning from home from N'dor, for any reason, should bring as much salt as they can carry. That way we can stockpile it here in the main village. N'dor is a day's walk northwest from Tahlata. Whatever we stockpile here we will also save a day's travel to both Norwood and Rothswell."
He had them, he knew it, but he rammed his point home with the sums he and Jak had worked on.
As with Rothswell, the Seatoun and Southwell trips took two weeks as well but taking salt from Tahlata to Norwood is only a two-day round trip."
The elders knew he spoke true.
The fearsome giant roared. "You know Jak Foster?"
Was that a damning accusation or a friendly enquiry? It was all "fee-fi-fo-fum" to Nervous Nelly Yeldon.
In the - heavily tattooed - face of such a behemoth, thoughts other than "flee" had gone out the window. They didn't go out the door to the alley though, not with four more junior versions of the colossus lurking in the shadows.
Yeldon's frantic eyes flitted back inside where a thought was forming. "Jack Forrester" did ring a bell... Ding-Dong.
"Oh wait, weird boy with terrible hair--" He halted, hoping to the hells, he hadn't offended five mohawk-sporting warriors. "Good kid though... Heart of gold..."
"Yes, terrible hair, that’s Jak," the giant's lips curled upwards. On most people it would be encouraging. "My name is Hanska Tatonka, headman of Eagle Clan. - Jak tells me you are an honest businessman and take care of the children?"
"Well I try, though--"
"Good." The colossus continued. "How much would you give me for four hundred pounds of salt?
"I don't know if I have that much money and it's not my usual business--" Yeldon blathered.
"I know this, act like it is."
"Well, it sells for five silvers per pound, so let's say four silvers a pound."
“Four silvers a pound..." The big chief repeated slowly, as if insulted at the amount.
"Like I said, it's not my usual field and I'd need to make a profit..."
"No, four is fine, Jak was right about prices. Do you know trader Roke Norwell?"
"Only by reputation," Yeldon replied, reluctant to elaborate. Norwell, known locally as "Ne'er-do-well" or "The Weasel" was no friend of his.
"You've made me a fair offer, now let's negotiate," Hanska said
"I could go four and a half I suppose..."
"If the price of salt was three silvers, would you give me two silvers?"
"Sure... but it isn't," Yeldon said. "It's actually closer to six."
"But if you made it three, that would be the price and you would sell more," Hanska countered. "I don't need all that money for my supplies and salt sells for only two and a half silvers in Norwood."
"'Tis true, but everything is more expensive here, thanks to our taxes,” Yeldon replied. “Show me your supplies list and I'll tell you how much it all is."
After more bizarre Ankan bartering they eventually struck a deal when the giant made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Yeldon agreed immediately, as if he was could say no to the huge brute. However, he was surprised to find he was secretly pleased. His heart hadn't been in the restaurant trade. Not since Jak had nudged him towards the more rewarding role of caring for urchins. He had their trust and now with his financial future sorted he could focus on the children full-time. He even had a few ideas he'd been daydreaming about. Most of them involved a certain emerald-eyed widow... Yes, his heart had been elsewhere for some time now. He also had several other philanthropists in mind... And there was an empty warehouse he had his eye on...
He impulsively smiled and held out his hand to have it well and truly shaken by the giant. He had to get to the bank and - if his tingling fingers could still sign his name - withdraw his entire savings. However, before he could go the antsy Ankan had a final question. Very final. "Where do they hide this captain of guards?"