This was written at Write Club, 28th Apr 2018, based on prompts given by Ranjan. For a better understanding of the context, please go through https://writeclubbangalore.com/session-material/combat-basics-of-writing-ranjan/
This is not a complete story, although it could be read as one (if you are willing to leave everything else to your imagination) 🙂
Enjoy, and as always, do let me know how you find it.
The Boar’s Arms
The bell above the door jangled.
The inn-keeper looked up from the pewter mug he was polishing, his hope of one more sale fading as he took in the sight of the visitor. Mice his cat dragged into the living room had looked better, more… alive, he supposed. He set the mug down carefully, his eyes never leaving the figure as it trudged to a dark corner of the Boar’s Arms and sat down heavily. The inn-keeper heard a noise as a seat was occupied; he did not know whether it was the man or the chair that had groaned.
The man looked up, meeting his host’s eyes for the first time.
“What’ve you got for silver?” he mumbled. The rumble echoed around the nearly-empty Arms.
The inn-keeper hesitated, but only for a second. Trouble was trouble, he knew. Then again, silver was silver. You don’t turn down silver when there’s precious little to be had.
“If it’s drink ye want,” the inn-keeper said, trying to match the low rumble of his visitor, immediately ashamed that his voice came across as faint, almost timid, “It’ll buy ye more’n ye can hold. If it’s a roof, ye get a night.”
“Make it a drink and the night,” the man said, closing his eyes, speaking as if he were already elsewhere.
The inn-keeper shrugged. It was still a decent bargain as far as he was concerned, although he knew he would have to demand the payment in advance. Too many times had he been stiffed by guests who forgot the promises of the night before; too many times had he simply stood there, taking it, because he had too much to lose to do anything else.
Nothing else was said in the Arms as the inn-keeper drew a mug of the foulest brew he kept for guests he wanted to discourage from further patronage. He dropped the towel on his forearm, picked up the pitcher and made his way over the dusty, creaking floor of the Boar’s Arms.
A few feet away from the visitor, he sensed dark patches under his feet. Gingerly, he stepped aside and tried to make out through the gloom what these were. Clueless, he pressed a smear with the toes of a foot; it soaked in through the hole in his sole, warm and thick. A moment later, he inhaled the unmistakably coppery stench of blood.
The man was bleeding.
Inside the Boar’s Arms.
What if he died?
Did he really have silver on him?
Thoughts whipped through his head, too fast and too worrying for him to want to actually acknowledge them. His body made its way over the guest on its own accord and his hands plopped the mug down unkindly, resenting the intrusion of blood and all that it insinuated, and resenting even more the need that drove the inn-keeper.
Up close, the inn-keeper realized that his guest was bigger than he had initially taken him to be. His face was bruised, a limb wrapped tightly in a dark piece of cloth that might or might not be bloodied. A hand massaged a thigh, its glove on the table in front of the guest, leather that had once been cared for, a proud possession now simply a necessary accessory. A wince flitted across the guest’s face and there was pain in his eyes.
The inn-keeper paused. The pain wasn’t physical, he sensed. It was something deeper, something far away, something whose depths he found himself shivering at the thought of.
Beside the man, the inn-keeper noticed, a scabbard was placed against the table. It was a thin sheath, the kind farmers who lived at the edge of the forest carried with them, cheap and made of whatever spares the women had lying about. It was the sword within that caused the breath to catch in his throat, though.
That evening, earlier in the day, the drunks at the Boar’s Arms had talked about nothing else.
That bewitched sword.
That accursed sword.
“You are…” the inn-keeper blurted out before he could stop himself.
He caught the glimpse of a wry expression flash on the visitor’s face. Or had it just been the flicker of the candle, a trick of the light, the game the fumes sometimes played on him? The man took a long, deep chug from the mug. The inn-keeper waited for the inevitable burst of irritation that the brew always drew; he was left waiting.
“Derik Sanstorme,” the guest said.
“Yer the one that took the leg off Sebastian,” the inn-keeper said.
“Aye,” the man said. There was neither pride nor sorrow, just the aridity of a statement of fact. “He wanted to stop me.”
“They said yer his friend.”
“Still am, I think. When this is all over…”
The inn-keeper’s curiosity was piqued, as was his elation at having something to tease his customers the next day with. But before he could pursue the matter, Derik Sanstorme grabbed his wrist. It felt like a vice. The inn-keeper grimaced, biting his tongue to keep from crying out.
“Where’s the Emerald Nest?”
The inn-keeper kept his mouth shut. As bad as the man could hurt him – even if he went to the extent of taking a leg – to reveal the secret of the Nest was to invite a fate unimaginably horrible. There was not enough gold in the world, let alone silver, that would tempt him…
“Fear isn’t as bad as the real thing, I promise you.” Derik said. He sounded different now, the inn-keeper thought. There was suddenly a menace, an air of intractable determination that had been missing in the weary traveller he had taken him to be.
It was at that moment, as he pondered the choices left to make in a life that had been a long list of regrettable choices, that the inn-keeper noticed the silhouette appear at one of the windows to the Arms. With a cry of alarm, one that even managed to surprise Derik, he shook himself free. “That bastard!” he said with venom dripping off each syllable.
Derik turned, saw the shadow slinking past. For a moment, he wondered if his senses had failed him. Then he relaxed as a spot of light illuminated the trespasser. It was a human, someone he had never met before, but not one he needed to fear.
“It’s Albert, the taxman!” the inn-keeper was all but shouting now. He was about to move away when Derik grabbed his hand, stopping him dead in his tracks. “He’s a right bastard, that one. Takes in the name of the King, and then takes some more for heself to make sure ours doesn’t go bad in front of the highness, he does.”
The inn-keeper continued to struggle. “Let me go, you wretch. That son of a pig-whore isn’t here tonight for taxes, though. He’s been around when I’ve been busy, to trouble my wife, scaring her he will have my head if she doesn’t go to bed with him.”
Derik stood up and let go of the inn-keeper, surprising the man so much he lost his balance and almost fell down amongst the tables.
“If I send him away, will you tell me where the Nest is?”
The inn-keeper stared at the dark, unreadable eyes. There was a promise there, just as certainly as there was a threat as well. Gold, silver, even the threat of reprisals from the Guardians of the Nest… weighed against his wife, the inn-keeper knew which way his balance tilted.
Derik squeezed his fingers once around the inn-keeper’s wrist to seal the pact, and then he was off. Moving with grace the inn-keeper would never have suspected such a large man to be capable of, he swung the scabbard up and over his shoulder so that it hung diagonally across his back. Where he stood, a pool of blood had gathered; it did not seem to matter to him, although such blood could have only been caused by a grievous wound. He made his way to the door, his heavy feet startlingly silent on the creaky floor. The inn-keeper blinked.
The man was nowhere to be seen. But the door he had passed through was swinging shut, almost – but only almost – ringing the bell on its way back.
The silence of the next few moments was eventually broken by a loud cry of surprise, one that quickly took on tones of arrogance, then anger. The inn-keeper strained his ears to catch the words that eluded him. Feet scuffled in the light snow outside.
Then there was a thump, then the clink of a chain-link armor.
And, at the end of a heartbeat’s throb, a wail, a long, blood-curdling, never-ending wail of agony that sounded like the torture of a hundred banshees.
Then silence again.
Broken this time by the jangling of the door as Derik Sanstorme walked through the door, this time with a slight smile on his face and a pouch in his palm. The inn-keeper watched him return to his seat and down the rest of his drink in one gulp. His eyes darted to the sword and saw the metal gleaming with a dull green – so the rumours were true after all! – even through that part of the sheath that looked damper and darker than the rest of it.
“Well?” the inn-keeper asked. His pulse throbbed like a heavy drum in his ears.
Derik tossed the pouch at the inn-keeper’s feet. The inn-keeper picked up the pouch and spilled its contents – a single object – on the table near him. For a few seconds, he stared incomprehensibly, his brain refusing to accept that what he was seeing was indeed a familiar object. Blood dripped from one end.
And then he gagged. Words came. “That’s… that’s…” Words went. His world, he knew with a certainty he had never felt before, would never be the same again.
“Why he won’t be trouble to your woman anymore,” Derik said.
The inn-keeper backed away a few steps on wobbly legs until his buttocks pressed against another table. A silver coin rolled to a stop at his feet. The metal repulsed him now. It seemed dark and ugly, its lustre forever dulled by the blood that stained it without ever having touched it.
His eyes met Derik’s. The promise, the threat, the expectation. The question did not need asking.
Derik nodded. “The Nest, please,” he said with a softness – or was it kindness – that was lost on the inn-keeper. “They have my son.”