There was a hoary haughtiness to his gaze, like the frosted window in the steeple of a church. He didn’t belong here. His clothes were plain, for a lord. Yet they bordered on extravagant for the smoke-filled tavern that smelled of stale ale and sweat. Someone hammered on a dulcimer in a far corner while bawdy lyrics in a drunken voice kept time. He was too young for this place as well. He was tall and gangly lean, as though his girth were two summers behind his length. He leaned on the corner of the scarred wooden rail as he disdainfully surveyed the tawdriness of the patrons. His dark hair was pulled neatly back with a braided leather cord. His dark eyes penetrated the smoky room to see things others surely missed. I could see he possessed a rare intelligence for one so young. If he were more than seventeen summers I would eat my lambskin boots. And he was dead if I did nothing.
I watched and I waited.
Smoke from the poorly ventilated fireplace occasionally wafted into my little slice of paradise, a dark corner of the Laughing Mule.
A surly group dicing erupted in an argument that quickly turned violent. Fists flew first, followed quickly by the thump of Big Baor’s club. Big Baor was the hired tough keeping the patrons in line. He was big. He mostly kept them from killing each other. Though the freedom and adroitness with which he wielded his thick, knotted club of oak made me think the point moot. In this latest quarrel Big Baor’s club settled the argument evenly. Two men were dragged dazed and bleeding to the street.
They may kill each other outside tonight, yet their death was no concern of mine. The young lord had entered over a candle mark ago and held my attention. He waited and watched with equal parts disdain and morbid curiosity the baseness of his surroundings. He was waiting for someone.
The room looked back at him. Some cast a furtive glance, others ogled hungrily, but all let an eye wander over this young man so obviously out of his element. That is, all, but two men sitting at the other end of the bar. They appeared not to notice him at all. They were hard looking men standing out in a room full of hard looking men.
This young man perked up as a new stranger entered the dingy room. He caught the stranger’s attention with a wave. The stranger nodded, waded through the crowd and sidled up to him. He was a big man. Not like Baor, but wiry, and slender and tall. Not thin like the younger man, rather he was an oak branch whittled into shape by weather and wear, lean yet strong. His clothes were those of a woodsman or hunter. They were travel stained and worn. He wore a short, curved sword at his hip as well as a long thin dagger. I was much too far away to hear what was said. A draught of ale arrived for the hunter. Their heads were lowered together, voices I’m sure pitched for their ears only. This new stranger pulled up suddenly. He angrily pushed off the bar. My finely dressed youth grabbed him by the arm, earning him a glare from the stranger for his trouble. Whatever he said kept the hunter from leaving. He turned back to the bar and they talked another few moments. The youth pulled a hefty purse from his cloak and placed it on the bar. The surly stranger snatched it up and quickly hid it within the folds of his own cloak. He looked around, yet everyone was looking anywhere but at him. I could see the curse on his lips for the young fool. I watched the young man bristle in indignation. The stranger pulled a piece of parchment and mashed it into the young man’s chest angrily. He pushed away from the bar, heading for the door, his hand gripping the bone handled knife at his belt. Eyes followed hungrily. Most eyed the sword and knife, and decided the purse wasn’t worth the price. Except for the two men that had ignored my young friend earlier. They both looked at him as he left. They shared a glance with each other as the stranger left the tavern. One of them stood and made his way hastily to the door.
I stood to follow but the pull of my ring urged me to stay. I sat down. The hunter would have to take care of himself against the cutthroat. I watched the young man unfold the parchment. He stared at it for a long time before finally folding it into a pocket in his tunic. The second cutthroat had gone back to his drink, unconcerned. Another man well in his cups bumped into the young man. He apologized profusely and stumbled off. It earned him an irritated glare from the young gentleman. I slipped out from behind my seat as the drunkard stumbled by my table.
“A drink my good man?” I offered, stepping in his way and motioning to a chair.
The drunkard pulled up looking sharply at me. For a brief moment he didn’t seem so deep in his cups. Then the glossy look returned to his eyes and he swayed a bit. “Migh’ be a fine idea, migh be no’,” he said. “Migh’ be I ough’ a be on me may, I mean way,” he slurred.
It was an excellent performance.
I leaned forward, eyeing him dangerously. “You can leave, but not before I get the young lord’s purse,” I said.
Gone was the glassy look, replaced with a wary one. One I’ve seen plenty on cornered men.
“You’re mistaken sir,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me,” he finished and tried to shoulder by me.
I grabbed him by his elbow. With my other hand, I slipped a dagger against his midsection. “I will gut you here if you insist,” I threatened.
He froze and then cursed and said, “Bloody stone fool I was, thinking I could get a little coin for my troubles. Here!” he sputtered, tossing a purse on the table with a loud clink. Heads turned. “Now release me!”
I let him go and he scampered as quickly as he could out the door. I scooped up the purse and cursed under my breath. It was lighter than it should have been for a purse full of coin. I opened the drawstrings and looked inside. Round pieces of tin clinked together. “Fool!” I muttered, dropping the useless bag back on the table. I returned my attention to the young lord, but he was gone. “Stone fool indeed!” I swore.
I took a step toward the door when a young lady stepped in front of me, barring my way with a smile and doe eyes. Her dark hair was tied back in a flowing tail. She wore loose fitting breaches gathered at the waist and ankles. Her shirt was the same airy material, the strings lacing up the front from her navel hung loose at the collar, and clung to her lithe frame, accentuating her figure well. Contrasting nicely, she wore her sleeves tucked into a thin steel band at her wrist, with strips of steel running up her forearm to a second band just below her elbow. I had seen these before, a sort of barrel-stave wrist greave. She wore the same running from her ankles to her knees.
“Hello my handsome fellow,” she said, eyeing me up and down. “And where might you be from, for you’re certainly not from Ishalem?”
“I’m from afar and have no time for idle talk with women,” I said and put a hand on her shoulder to push her aside. Her smile set into a grimace and her eyes went steely. I could feel the point of a dagger on the inside of my leg, just beneath my crotch.
“Another move and I’ll cut you,” she threatened, her voice pitched low. “Two ways for it to end. I slice sideways,” and I felt the pressure of her blade on my inner thigh. “And you bleed out after cutting that vessel in your leg, or I slice up,” and now I felt the blade rise uncomfortably into my crotch. “And you live life as a eunuch. Tell me, which would you prefer?”
“There is a third way,” I said remaining calm, despite the awkward pressure of a knife in my groin.
“Do tell,” she cooed.
“You can put the blade away and I let you leave with your life,” I said. “I have no quarrel with you and if you seek one with me be warned, it will not end well for you.” I cast a look toward the door, growing impatient at this delay.
She looked to the door as well. “Perhaps you tell me what you want with the young master and I’ll let you be?”
“You’re his-,” I was going to say ‘man’ but I settled for, “in his employ? Then you truly are making a big mistake. I mean him no harm.”
“Then why do you ogle him from across the room,” she asked, “and then move to follow him after he leaves. And who was that so-called drunk who paid you in coin just now? Did he hire you to kill the young master?”
I scoffed. “Take the coin and ask yourself how much death you could buy with it?” I challenged.
She looked at the bag I had left on the table, leaned over and scooped it up. Hefting it in her palm she said, “It’s big enough to purchase a life.”
I laughed again. “Does it feel heavy enough to you?”
Irritated, she hefted the bag again but now her eyes narrowed. Keeping pressure on my inner thigh, she pulled the drawstring with her teeth and looked inside. Now it was her turn to tease. “It appears you were duped,” she laughed.
Her laugh tinkled like crystal chimes swaying in a lazy summer breeze. It is strange to think such a thing about a woman with a knife to your groin. Yet I found her voice pleasant. “You mistake my intentions and have entirely missed the two toughs that were watching your master from the other side of the bar.” I glanced over at the second man, and realized he was gone. I stifled a curse and said, “If you care about your master you should let me go now. They both are gone, as well as the so-called drunkard who stole whatever information your master just purchased. I thought it was his purse, which he gladly let me believe the truth, and fed me this bag of tin to buy time to escape. Your master will not survive the next candle mark if he faces those three alone.”
Her eyes narrowed dangerously, but I could see the confusion. “Two at the bar?” she said and looked over her shoulder. When she turned back to me her eyes sparkled as though she were privy to the joke. “I know the two you speak of and they never glanced his way,” she said.
The way the flickering candles and firelight danced in her sparkling eyes, it was like watching the reflection of stars in a rippling pool of water. The image was broken by the clear sound of steel against steel, carrying from outside. We both looked to the sound. She cursed and sprinted to the door, artfully dodging her way through the crowd.
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