The Gray Horse Tavern was raucous with laughter and screaming and the clumsy strumming of a lute while Talid massaged the smooth rim of his metal tankard, debating on whether or not to take another drink of the thick mead these backwood squatters called refreshment. His head swam pleasantly with drink but his mouth tasted like someone had taken a piss in there. He wore a nondescript cloak, a tattered brown thing that smelled of earth and sweat; he’d slept outside the last few weeks, a requirement of a man on the run.
The tavern door banged open and Talid swung his shifting gaze in the direction of the newcomers. Three men stepped inside, each sweeping a pale green cloak out from between their legs and hitching it over a shoulder. The move was one of long practice, a flourish meant to draw the eye, a means with which to display the swords belted at their hips and the embroidered sigils decorating their shoulders. The sigils, three swords angled up with the hilts a bright white, were sown upon the right shoulder of each cloak. The swords signified the three aspects of justice: honor, objectivity, and fairness. And the three Justices standing just inside the doorway, faces rugged and unpleasant, looked ready to dispense their authority.
Talid swallowed the remainder of his mead in a single mouthful, eyeing the three lawmen crowding the exit. He glanced at a near window, the sunlight outside muted by a thick brown cloth hanging from bent nails. Good thing I kept my wits. He stood from his bench and the room swayed around him. The lit lanterns nearby swung in irritating golden circles. He pressed a hand to his brow and silently cursed himself.
Trying to tuck his head into his shoulder, he aimed to step past the Justices and into the afternoon free of their molestation. There was no need for trouble if they didn’t notice him. He was simply a drunk who’d finished his coin. Unfortunately, his inebriation disallowed for a smooth departure. He nudged the first of the three men and a heavy hand found his shoulder, steadying him.
“Careful, stranger,” a deep voice said.
Talid raised his head just a bit, pointing his long nose toward the man’s throat. The Justice had dim brown eyes, taken in only with a fierce squinting. “In … deed.” Talid hiccupped. “I mean, indeed, a stranger.” He attempted to pull free, lowering his face in an effort to hide his features but the hand securing him became a steel clamp.
The Justice tugged Talid up straighter and Talid was forced to once more look the man in the eyes. The Justice gave a scrutinizing study, noting Talid’s shaggy blond hair and his blue and brown mismatched eyes. A measure of shock twisted the Justice’s otherwise stolid countenance. The man gave a grim smile, displaying straight teeth. “Found you, bastard.”
Talid gave a wry grin and shook his head. “You forget, good man.”
He felt his left arm tighten and burn. A tremendous roar filled his ears and then the world exploded around him. The concussion hurtled Talid away from the three Justices, smashing him against a wall and setting his ears to ringing. The tavern shuddered and screamed as though the very boards holding it together had been given a torturous life.
Groaning, Talid clambered free of the smashed remains of a table and shook his head to clear the onset of vertigo. Bodies were strewn about the floor, many writhing in confused agony within the dregs of beer and mead and stew. The Justices were out cold, bunched around each other with their pale cloaks shrouding them in their sleep. Aside from the lawmen, the scene was one Talid had witnessed before.
He glanced down at his arm; it was bared now that the sleeve of his cloak had been burned away and wisps of black smoke lifted from his reddened flesh.
On his feet, Talid tucked his arm inside his cloak and groggily made way to the door. He stepped tenderly around the Justices and stumbled out to crash upon the dirt road, tasting the faint flavor of horse shit. His arm ached mightily and he did what he could to ignore it. Reaching his feet once more, he fled, running in a shambling gait to the nearest stable. There he took up the reins to a fierce looking black, pulled himself into the saddle and pressed his feet firmly into the stirrups. The horse bolted at the first twitch of the reins and had Talid not been hunched over the beast’s neck, he surely would have somersaulted backwards off its rump as it tore past the open stable door.
Talid rode a fair stint down the strange highway before pulling the black up short. The animal fought the reins momentarily, wanting to keep its head, but eventually gave over to Talid’s insistence. Talid rolled from the saddle and landed hard upon the packed dirt road. He scrambled up and ran to a stand of elms where he finally collapsed, acknowledging the roar of pain dancing in his arm. It was throbbing now as he inspected the damage.
His arm no longer smoked; long black lines were shifting back and forth across his skin, the lengths extending and retreating, the ends like tiny grasping fingers. He clutched it with his good right hand, vainly trying to fend off the ache. It would pass, he knew, but during the interval, when the pain was new and atrocious, he could think of nothing to do with comfort. Talid then put his back to the earth and let his arm pulse, counting each time fire coursed along the length. Tears were in his eyes and blood came into his mouth as he bit at his lips. Then, slowly, the pain passed, subsiding into lessening degrees of agony.
When he looked again, his arm was normal, the veins not even a memory of the terrible black lines that had sliced into him.
He wept in the silence, finally unable to hold back the dread of what he’d done. He did not weep for the Justices; they could be dead for all he cared. No, his tears were all for the family he’d sacrificed and the grant of powers that had led him to a night of thievery, a night that would forever haunt him. Had he known the Burnt God granted wishes behind the foggy veil of dreams, he never would have asked for a princess’s virginity or the payment needed for such frivolities. But his wife and child were dead and he knew what it was to spread the legs of a king’s daughter.
In his anger and frustration, Talid thrashed about on the ground, kicking and punching the soft earth like a boy in a tantrum. He did not curse the air, holding tightly his private words. Words were damning things and he was loath to even think clear thoughts lest the Burnt God bring ruin upon his head once more, calling it favor. That was why he swam in spirits that were over his head and swallowed canni seeds like insults before a priest. The seeds, like alcohol, dulled the senses and blunted even the worst memories. Intoxicated, if ever a crime was his to commit he would not be guilty of his own accord.
“I have nothing,” he said through his teeth.
He then laughed a chortling laugh that rose from his stomach to erupt from his mouth and nose. He settled upon the ground, giggling as thin white clouds moved from threads to curls to unintelligible forms high in the blue welkin. Brown branches of an elm moved in a breeze and their summer leaves tinkled softly.
As his laughing fit subsided, Talid reached two fingers into the thin pocket of his cloak and pulled out a tiny mottled seed. He stuck it between his front teeth and bit. The kernel inside slid onto his tongue and there was no hesitation as he swallowed.
In the intermittent moment before the seed took effect, Talid remembered, briefly and unwillingly. Through a kind of brown haze which had become distant memories, a woman and a small curly-headed babe came to him.
“Let me hold her,” Talid said, reaching for his daughter.
“Don’t swing her like you do,” Luarin said, her eyes never lifting from the blonde-headed infant. “I’m tired of cleaning up the sick.”
Luarin carefully handed the bundled child over. In his arms, she felt weightless. The smile on little Seeln’s face marked his heart. He began to gently rock her, cradling her head with a hand. The smile broadened.
He rocked her faster, glancing up at Luarin with a grin. “I’ll clean it this time.”
And the child broke down into stunted laughter, eyes beaming, mouth a wide grin all of pink gums.
The memory vanished there, replaced by a courteous void. Talid shook his head and the world was unable to follow. He grinned as the trees merged with the sky, a gray-green swirling medley.
“Fuck that.” He put a fist to the ground and heaved himself shakily to his feet. The horse whinnied beside him as he took an unsteady step. “This.” He reached a hand out, in the direction of his pilfered mount, whatever words were following on his tongue left forgotten. Three fingers brushed the reins as Talid toppled to the earth, his head striking the ground and rebounding. He was numb to the pain but it woke a dastardly vision.
Tossing beneath his sheets, sweat covering him like a fine sheen of dew, Talid moved within the dream.
It was a beautiful procession of knights and maids and lords and jesters. Polished armor shone brilliantly beneath the summer sun. Hair was bound high; golden curls framed faces; and dresses were of a low cut, exposing pale bosoms heavily powdered white. The jesters juggled colored balls high into the air as they cartwheeled and spun, their hats of yellows and greens and bells bouncing and jingling playfully as they entertained. Men with trimmed and oiled beards, meticulously cut hair, and faces that carried straight noses and stern eyes rode massive war-horses that brought a drumming to the earth, their passage masked in sound only by the cheering throng lining the boulevard.
Talid waded through the crowd, through the choking horde of cheering peasants who hailed their betters with dirt-stained arms and hollow stomachs. Talid stopped by a wooden post from which hung a sign he could not read. The letters seemed wrong yet somehow familiar. He didn’t really care. He stepped atop a lettuce crate, granting a better view. The king and queen were coming next, sitting proudly upon their white mounts.
And the beautiful princess Caleen trailed them.
She came into view riding a dun palfrey. Her fair face, framed with a waterfall of tragically black hair, granted her an air of mystery. With piercing green eyes, she glanced at the screaming masses, smiling with straight white teeth at the adoration.
Talid felt himself wilt at the sight; she was the kind of beauty men had not yet managed to describe. The way she moved atop the horse, easy, balancing with its steps, woke inside him a base desire he fought madly to restrain.
“Could I have her for one night, my grave would never go cold,” he mused out loud.
“A prize such as that demands a hefty price,” a voice said in his ear, intimately close.
Turning, Talid found a brute of a man at his side. The stranger had long black hair that covered his face like a draping hood, hiding his features. He was decked in a black cloak that fell down to his feet. The man was a shadow standing defiant in the daylight.
Talid shook his head. “No price for that would be terrible.” He could almost taste her in his mouth. She would eat strawberries and her red lips would be as sweet. Her tongue swam in the finest wines and would be as intoxicating. “No price,” he repeated, feeling a welcomed urge climb inside him
“A wife and child?” the stranger asked, his tone curious.
Talid looked to the man and nodded. I have no wife, and I have no child, he thought with a laugh. “I would pay that if I had it.” He was again staring off at the princess. His mouth filled with lights.
“I—” Talid started, but closed his mouth as he found the man gone from his side. He peered back through the crowd, certain he would see such a large and defined shape retreating. But all he found were blurred faces and raised fists.
Talid did not lift his head from the ground as he vomited, the memory dispersing as he spat sick from his teeth.
“Hurry.” He grunted the plea. Licking the inside of his mouth, he spat another gobbet of sick upon the ground then rolled to look up at the blue dome. “The sky is nice. The finest thing a man can see lying on his back. God’s underskirt.” He coughed a laugh and the horse stamped.
It was a testament to his patience and persistence that he took to his feet again. He wobbled, extending his arms to keep his balance. When the world no longer teetered beneath him, he glanced around.
“Again, I find myself utterly at a loss for where I am or how I got here.” The road he stood upon ran a good deal behind him. Ahead, it curved around a bend in the wood.
The horse then gave a bray.
Talid glanced at the animal. “Yes, I’ve deduced that it was you who brought me here.” He looked around. “Wherever here is.”
A moment of disorientation was all Talid suffered before he was forced to confront an approaching wagon. It came from the bend, hidden by tall elms whose branches were heavy with leaves. A rather large woman rode atop the wagon, the reins of two duns in her hands. Talid signaled a greeting as she approached.
The woman drew the wagon to a stop and peered down at him from below a wild mess of chestnut hair. She’d tried to pin it back with a faded blue kerchief but thick strands had tumbled free and hung jagged around her wide, sweat-beaded face.
“This road,” Talid said, “it leads to?”
She glanced down the road in the direction of her travel. “East. The town of Staffen.” She turned back to him. “How did you come to get lost? It’s only a small span between Staffen and Stomm.”
“A few too many drinks, perhaps?” Talid searched his memories for what might have brought him here. He knew it had been trouble. Trouble was always the reason he couldn’t remember where he’d last been. But he couldn’t recall what trouble.
“A ride then?” the woman offered. “You can strap your mount to the wagon.”
“Actually I’d prefer to head in any other direction, thank you.” Talid searched for a path through the trees on both sides of the road, despairing when nothing of interest was found.
“I could make the journey worth it.” The woman gave a small, suggestive smile, something that might have been attractive on the lips of a tinier, comelier woman.
“I’m not much fond of the sea,” he said to the woman, scratching at his long nose.
“What’s that got to do with anything?” Her fists found her broad hips, and there added a tremendousness her frame could have done without.
“Whales,” Talid said absently. “I assume that’s your ilk. Besides,” he leaned toward her and sniffed, “you smell like tuna.”
It was not possible, yet the woman puffed up, and her face went as scarlet as burnt flesh. “You are a rude scoundrel,” she said, huffing like a spent racehorse, “and I hope the world gives you no joy for your lack of manners.” She lashed the reins and sent the horses forward with a jolt, turning up her nose as she rode away.
“And I hope the world denies you desserts!” he yelled after. She turned and gave him a scowl.
Alone again, he shook himself inside his cloak before taking the strange horse’s reins in hand and tugging the beast away from the road. That was safest, he knew, away from roads, away from towns and people and all things living and breathing. That would see his skin remain intact, as was his intention. But what bothered him, and what tickled the back of his mind, was that he wasn’t sure why he should feel so wary about the world.
The sun skipped across a cloudy blue sky as Talid led the mount north through a tight thicket. His boots were loud upon the earth; the horse was of its own commotion, pressing through the trunks and trampling the leafy ground with nothing of grace. Talid inhaled the rich loamy air, stiffening as the odor of the horse’s fresh offal came over him. He supposed travel wasn’t without its discomforts.
As the afternoon lengthened the shadows of elm and ash, and the scent of the world took on a gloomier aroma of rotted logs and standing water, Talid stepped from the tree line to find a seldom used road of ruts and flattened yellow grasses. It ran fairly straight to the west, toward the falling sun. To the east, though, it curved, shooting north. With a shrug, Talid turned east, deciding to keep with his course. “All good things come to those who keep their head up. North is up.”
He still walked with reins in hand, uncertain he wanted to mount a strange horse. Besides, he wanted nothing to do with the brand of horse thief. Stolen things were better left to those with an affinity for confined spaces and missing limbs. He laughed at himself, a long pealing laugh sprouting from the bottom of his stomach.
“I’ve stolen the greatest treasure,” he said to the horse, giving the beast’s jowl a kind slap. He nodded to himself. What was it? He laughed all over again. His laughter continued under the uncertain eye of the black until they came upon a homestead set away from the road. The fields around looked long underused with trees and grass growing without order. A tall barn sat back, strangled in weeds and new growth. The home itself was in no fine shape. It had been white once, noted by the patches of peeling paint. Boards were exposed now, dark and bowed. The roof showed horrid upkeep. Moss had taken to the wooden slats making it appear as a head of green hair. On the air was the smell of rain. Talid searched the sky, finding dark storm clouds bunching up in the west.
Slowing his progress, Talid spied the old man sitting upon the porch, rocking idly in a chair. He was looking back at Talid across the unkempt yard. For a moment, the two men stood staring at one another, Talid holding horse reins, the old man fingering his short white beard. Finally, Talid shrugged and pulled the black toward the house. It might do to have a kind place to stay the night. Sleeping outside was one thing, doing it in the rain an altogether different kind of misery.
“You fancy life, boy?” the old man called when Talid had closed to speaking distance.
Talid pulled up short and nodded. “I do.”
“Then you best turn your ass and keep moving. I have my things and none are for stealin’.” With a scrape of steel on wood, the old man produced a long bastard sword riddled with nicks and rust. A relic that might have once demanded glory.
“Trust me,” Talid said, “I want nothing of your rubbish. Maybe a place to sleep.”
“Rubbish? Trust you?” The man rocked faster, a smile showing yellowed teeth. “A man doesn’t get as old as this with trust. You hear that? Suspicion and steel have seen to these wrinkles and these old bones, nothing else.”
“You shun simple travelers? And scare them with death?”
The old man shook his sword; his hold appeared steady and sure. “This is a promise of death. I fought in three wars, each as useless as the last. A waste of time and life. I vowed then that I wouldn’t succumb like so many other lads.” He shook his head. “No, and here I sit, breathing and farting and coughing up colors I can’t name. They? They’re in the earth. And what of the wars? Passed now, the idle fancy of kings and shit-upon-lords.”
“Romantic,” Talid said. “I could pay, friend. For the trouble.” He reached for his purse.
“I was letting blood while you were still pissing your blanket,” the old man said. He seemed bent on portraying himself as a man of violence. “The how of killing a man never leaves, understand? Don’t go thinking I can’t.”
“I’m sure you’re a formidable warrior,” Talid said with a nod, “what rocking in your chair and all.”
“Bugger your fool self.” He used the sword to point to the road. “I don’t care your direction, just get off my land.”
Talid spread his arms. “I have no weapons, you see. I have no reason to wish you harm. I’ve come a long way and am weary for it. A place to sleep is all. Your barn, perhaps?” Damned ornery fellow.
The old man shook his head. “You have a tongue. That’s trouble enough. The barn is a mean thing and you might find it less comfortable than sleeping outdoors.”
“My tongue?” Talid asked, his curiosity piquing.
“Aye. Some ignorant simpleton come this way a few years back. Couldn’t help spouting off about some damned woman.” He shifted the sword to his other hand. “Probably defiled the barn with his lust for her. No, men are too quick to talk of things that don’t need any talking about.”
“Unsavory, the all of them.” The old man glanced beyond Talid, out into the far fields. “And liars,” he added quietly.
That was it then, the old man was sad. Talid knew nothing worse than a sad old man. Whatever they had lost they had not the time to get it back. And bitterness inside a heart was no tamed thing to tease. But Talid needed hospitality. If it couldn’t be bought with coin, it’d have to be purchased by other means.
“Well, we agree on that point,” Talid said, giving his head a shake. “Truth of things, I’m heading north to rid myself of a woman and all the damage she’s caused me.”
“What kind of damage?” A twinkle had infiltrated the old man’s eye. He even leaned forward and stopped his rocking, resting the sword blade down.
Talid knew the scenario, and worked out a story to connect with the old man’s flagging heart. “She went and found another, one with more time than I had. Ugly bugger too. And smelly, I’m sure. Spends all his time squatting in one place, refusing to go anywhere.” Talid stepped forward. “I said to her, ‘You stupid girl. I had prospects. I had good things coming for us. Now what do I have? A capricious woman that knows nothing of loyalty.’” He threw his hands up in mock disgust. “So I come out here, where the women are a bit more accommodating to a man’s heart. I think it’s the cold makes them that way.”
“You done heard that?” The old man shook his head. “You heard wrong. Women are the same up here as they are in the south. It’s not the weather that takes the love out ‘em, it’s them that takes the love out us.”
Talid took another step forward. “Those are the words I was afraid to hear.” He lowered his head. “I wish it were simpler, you know? Love a girl and keep her for it.” Another step. “I think it’s the stories that blind us. Love conquers all, right? Well, love hasn’t got shit on a woman’s black heart.”
The old man guffawed. “Agreed. Agreed.” He was nodding so heartedly the loose skin of his neck jiggled.
With a long look behind him, Talid said, “I best get to moving. Those storm clouds in the west?” Evening was slowly losing its grip on the day and the last of the sun’s light showed clear the heavy clouds edging east.
Biting his bottom lip, the old man hummed. “I don’t suppose a night would hurt nothing. Be a damn insult to have to sleep out in a storm. Don’t go saying Barwin never did nothing nice for nobody. I haven’t lost my cock yet.”
“Barwin, nice to meet you. Name’s Talid.”
“It’s not a nice thing to meet me, boy. But I appreciate your manners. A drink?”
“I’m never opposed to a drink.”
“Tie your horse to that post and come on inside. I have some wine that might be just the right age for the both of us.”
Talid secured the horse and entered the home, Barwin leading. The sword was left on the porch.
They followed a wide hall that had dusty quilts decorating the walls. The floorboards were curved in places and had lifted themselves in others, pulling nails free. There were a few leaves curled up in corners, and a muskiness hung in the air as though Barwin didn’t open the windows often enough.
They made it to the kitchen and Barwin offered the table. It was a round wooden thing with two chairs. There was a single window in the room, but the heavy canvas curtains were pulled tightly shut and the only light came from a nub of candle set on a nearby stool. The air here was heavy with the scent of apples.
“You bake?” Talid asked.
Barwin was in a corner, bent over a chest. He rose, a green bottle in hand and a frown on his face. “Nothing’s been baked in here for a handful of years. Do I look like I bake?”
“My apologizes. Looking for conversation.”
“There’s better things to do with your mouth.” With that he popped the cork of the bottle using a knife and tilted it back to his lips. He drank deeply before passing the vintage over.
Reflexively, Talid reached into his cloak and pulled out a canni seed. He popped the kernel into his mouth and took a swig. The wine was heady and sweet. “That is a fine drink,” Talid complimented, passing the bottle back to Barwin.
Barwin had taken the other seat at the table, shoulders sloping. He nodded as he took the wine in hand. “One of my few spoils of war.” He downed another drink, smacked his lips, then asked, “Did she have laughing eyes, like she knew some secret joke?”
“She knew a joke all right, the one she played on me.”
“What was her name?”
So much for not wanting conversation. “Ann.”
“A whore’s name,” Barwin said knowingly.
Just a name, but whatever. Talid was handed the bottle and he obliged by swallowing a mouthful.
“Here we were,” Barwin said, looking around the kitchen, “living a life. Next thing I know, she needed a change, said there might be something else out there. ‘No,’ I said to her, ‘there’s not much else.’ I knew this, you know, because of the wars. She didn’t know what it was we shared. Pity. Had she gone where I’d gone, seen what I’d seen, tasted what I’d tasted, she’d have realized the paradise we had right here.” The bottle went to his lips and he drank for the measure of five breaths. Pulling the bottle back, he inhaled deeply. “Doesn’t do it anymore,” he said, frowning at the bottle with a mixture of remorse and anger. “Used to. Not anymore.” He passed it back.
“I started tar,” Talid said. “It works wonders at numbing a mind.”
Barwin gave over a curious eye. “That bad?”
“Worse.” Setting the nearly spent bottle on the table, Talid tapped the side of his head with a finger. “Made me think silly things. Maybe the world isn’t such a wonderful place. Maybe it’d be better not to feel anything at all.” He leaned back, the burn of his stomach prodding at his gullet. “I was sorry there weren’t any wars; I was ready to die.”
“No honor in that, boy.”
“There’s little honor is passing out in the street, soiling yourself because you don’t know whether you’re sitting on a privy or in a puddle of rain water.” His head got to shaking. “No honor in patronizing the skirthouses, searching for comfort between a strange woman’s legs.” A burning came to Talid’s eyes. He batted the tears away with the back of a hand. “There’s no honor in keeping her alive inside you, remembering how wonderful she was before . . . before she lost her way.” He took the bottle in hand and admired the colored glass. He moved it toward his face, the wine slapping the inside of the container, and without taking a drink said, “I lost my life once; I don’t fear to do it again.”
He had never known a girl named Ann, had never suffered such betrayal, but something inside him remembered loss, and had drawn the words from his throat. A well played ruse, one that brought a strange heaviness to his heart. He glanced up at Barwin, and found tears in the old man’s sad eyes.
“You take to the barn, boy.” Barwin scratched at the tabletop with a thick finger, face gone as limp as the line of his shoulders.
Talid took the opportunity to down one more swallow of the wine. “Thank you for the generosity,” he said once his mouth was empty. Barwin didn’t respond and only kept his head bowed, finger flicking along the wood.
Before going to the barn, Talid went and retrieved the black. Together they entered the dilapidated structure and Talid slowly pulled the door closed behind them. The interior of the barn was dim and dreary. A few of the nearer stalls had fallen in and piles of old hay were bunched atop fallen stacks of wood. The horse snorted and wandered over, snuffling for something worthy of eating. Talid’s stomach took that moment to give a low growl. He hadn’t thought to ask the old man for a bite. With the shred wine, the morning would certainly see him sick. There was no looking forward to it.
He pulled another seed from his pocket and tossed it in his mouth. He swallowed and took a seat on the floor, propping his back against a low wall. Tugging his cloak tighter around him, he closed his eyes, seeing only darkness. Thoughts tried to form inside his mind but broke apart before granting anything of clarity. For that, Talid was thankful.
“Horse, quiet down.”The animal pawed at the soft barn floor, scraping his hoof in a long drawn out display of irritation. Talid laughed to himself then let the wine and seed lead him to a nothing sleep.