The tavern hummed with activity, drinking, games of darts and singing songs and merriment. The light of the warm fire danced along the dark wooden beams and the cobbled stone floor. On the walls made of stone not daub were exquisite paintings and tapestries depicting maids bathing by a lake like wood nymphs. The room swelled with a carefree indulgence rarely seen in these hard times. Coirpre of course, savoured every moment of it. How lucky he felt to be in the bohemian city of Slaghtaverty, to be in Ulster away from the pig farmers and yocals who couldn’t hope to appreciate his poetry. To smell fine wines and ales in the air instead of pig shit and misery.
Here it was different, the people were cultured and open minded and what’s more they knew his name and treated him as his position would dictate. Bard’s were of course revered as much as princes for the power they held could make kings and heroes alike out of common folk and vice versa.
They could bring to life ancient battles and mighty sea voyages, they had the power to create and destroy reputations a power few sneered at.
“Please sir Coirpre, one more ballad, the lusty maid of Sliabh an Iarainn perhaps?” A women in a fox felt hat said, her comely face slackened by the ale in her cup. Her dress even more so.
“No no, I must go to bed” Coipre jested.
“But who would you take with you noble Coirpre” The woman cued shamelessly, moistening her eyes and clutching her breast wantonly. The tone of her voice flat and monotone, her eyes doughy and expressionless. A small crowd of similarly inebriated women gathering at her heel.
“My lady please, I beg you-.“ Coirpre taken aback by this proposal turned clumsily and bumped face first into the warm stone wall of the tavern. In doing so spilling the remainder of his flagon on his tunic.
Looking up from his stupor he regarded that it was not in fact a wall but a man, a man in which he recognized.
“Are you all right sir Coipre” The drunken maid asked the downed bard as he picked himself back up.
“It’s you!” He sputtered attempting to dust the bear off his jerkin. “The one who saved me from those bloodthirsty peasants in Killaloe?”
Cur didn’t even look down as he said in his guttural fashion “Out of my way fool!” pushing the minstrel aside like a common beggar.
“Yes well, thank you all the same” He muttered tugging at the bottom of his sodden tunic, his face turning red.
“What are we doing here?” Birog whispered as she dusted off a chair to sit at a table near the fire. “Isn’t it dangerous to come here, I think the fewer people we encounter the better, what if a thief were to-“
“We have business to conclude here with the Chieftain Abertach.” Tuan said as he sat down looking around at the women who encircled the bard Coirpre like a bird of prey picking a mouse.
“What business? We have a mission that will decide the fate of the whole kingdom and you want to run errands?” Birog tittered folding her arms scournfully.
Cur eyes scanned the small inn looking at every local in turn. There was Coirpre the bard fending off a coven of flat faced wenches with fat arses. A potbellied bureacrat with a bulbous nose drinking himself red in the face leering at those around him. Some merchants sat at a long table drinking and playing some sort of card game, taking it very seriously as if their lives depended on it.
No denizen of the inn stood out but one. A strange cloaked figure whispered in the ear of the barkeep who was not as subtle as the cloaked figure stopping to gawp open mouthed in Cur’s direction.
“Good evening gentle folk.” A melodious voice said over his shoulder.
Coipre bowed cross legged at the edge of the table smiling tentatively. “I believe we got off on the wrong foot and I’d very much like to apologise.” He said speaking clearly looking at Cur who did not meet his gaze. “And of course buy you all a drink, perhaps perform any ballad or song you’d like.” He smiled looking at Tuan and Birog and then as if about to take to song he lifted his head to look at the wall behind them. “As on the morrow I depart to be received by none other than Bres king of Inish Veil himself at Dun Bresse.” Coipre boasted tossing a glance at the druiddess who seemed to recoil at hearing the name.
“Go” Cur groaned.
Tuan laughed and said “But haven’t you heard, Bres isn’t home.” He smirked and watched the puzzlement circle the bard’s face before releasing him. Tuan licked his lips and put both his hands on the table. “But a drink and a ditty will do nicely, anyone else?”
“Oh yes” Birog said “I’d love to hear a song.” She smiled seeming almost giddy to forget about Dun Bresse.
“She doesn’t get out much” Tuan smirked. “Three honey meads I think”
“Speak and it is done- oh barkeep!” He snapped his fingers at the barman. The cloaked figure who whispered to him skulked away almost without foot steps. He seemed even to float out of the door and under the crest of Ulster hanging above it.
The barkeep was a skinny sweaty looking fellow with a bulging beer gut and a potmarked faced. “Yes of course honorable Coipre sir!” He said bending and scraping like he was paying some sort of debt working here.
He returned swiftly with their drinks but under the one meant for the firbolg was a folded note. He he took it and unfolded it regarding it nonchalantly. He looked up at the barkeep who seemed hesitant, waiting for a response, his mouth slightly open as if he forgot to breathe.
“He’ll see you now” He said trying to whisper but his throat was too hoarse and it broke almost instantly.
Cur said nothing and slowly rose to his feet. Tuan and Birog did the same instinctively feeling as if the mood had changed drastically.
“The gentleman must go alone” The barkeep said putting out a pale thin hand to bar them with only the ghost of a threat.
“No, they come to” Cur growled.
The barkeep let his hand drop to his side as if it were made of wet rags “If you’re certain”. He swallowed painfully, his gaunt throat visibly contorting.
The barkeep nodded thoughtlessly, looking off into nothing.
Tuan looked at Coipre who held his loot about to play, a bemused expression on his face. “Be a good chap and mind our drinks won’t you” He smirked.
They left the table and followed the barkeep up a short set of steps beside the bar and around a corner into the back. There was an ordinary looking door, that seemed like it might lead to a cellar or cold room. The barkeep approached it and rapped on it three times.
“He’s here sir, the stranger” The barkeep said his head tilted forward waiting for a response.
With that the door opened and the barkeep moved aside and watched them as they went inside as if waiting for a pat on the head.
The door closed behind them. Before they knew it, they were boxed in on both sides by a couple of dwarf heavies in thick leather jerkins who padded them down for weapons. Going about it with the cool disinterest of a farmhand patting a sack of grain.
Cur grabbed the hand of the first that tried for his blade. A young but strapping dwarf with a pale beard but no moustache. An impish expression on his face as if he was caught stealing a bun from a market stall.
“I keep my weapon, you keep your fingers.” Cur hissed.
The dwarf froze, sweat dripping from his forehead he looked off at the other end of the smokey dark room. A large desk and the figure sitting behind it, waiting for some sign.
The figure at the desk waved some pipe smoke away and in so doing made a gesture. The dwarf heavy with permission retracted his hand scournfully, glaring at the side of Cur’s head.
Birog started a slap fight with her molester, ending in a red face for both of them but her attacker looked far more embarrassed. An older dwarf with a cue bald head and small boxed in ears, a long beard plated at the corners of his mouth. His ruddy face and beard made him appear more like a goat herder than a hired thug. Despite Birog’s protestation he succeeded in separating her from her sword belt and spiriting it away with him back into his corner. A dismayed look on his face as if he expected an apology.
Tuan rarely carried a weapon and thus did not object to the search. Merely tutting then rearranging his coat.
“Sit” The figure behind the desk said. Two more diminutive but stocky bodyguards stood behind him. Their arms crossed in front of them, large crossbows cradled on their tattooed forearms.
There was only one seat purposefully dwarfed by the desk, the Firbolg took it. Tuan and Birog were expected to be invisible, standing between the desk and the door.
“He might have thought you were jesting.” The dwarf behind the desk said as he stubbed out he rapped his pipe dumping the embers into a wooden tray.
“New boy, Abbertach?”
Abhertach didn’t take his eyes off Cur as he repacked his ornate hand carved bone pipe. One of the archers lit the pipe with a candle held in a hand missing most of its fingers. Abhertach let out a tight little laugh as he realised his mistake. The bodyguard missing the fingers growled under his breath. His face frozen in a bitter grimace. “Yes, he is.”
The dwarf with the missing fingers was completely bald and so clean shaven it looked like he could not grow hair at all. He scowled at the Firbolg as if somehow that would grow his fingers back.
“I should have told him not to search you but you see it’s a force of habit, no harm no foul, this time. I didn’t know you were coming.” Abhertach tried to smile warmly but under it was a cold clenching of teeth and sharp inhale of breath.
“The great Abhartach, spy master and thief, didn’t know we were coming” Tuan chimed in.
“And who are you sir that you know me enough to call me a thief?” Abhertach’s demeanor was jovial but barbed with a clear threat.
“No one” Tuan shrugged.
Abhartach was a gristled dwarf with shrewd rodent like eyes. The physique and shoulders of a warrior with a barreled gut of a chieftain. But the cheeks and soft wrinkled face of some sort of blood thirsty merchant who’d sell his grandmother for a higher cushion.
Abhartach twirled his enormous moustache which he wore with no beard which was uncommon for dwarfs. They were usually full bearded or clean shaven.
“Now that the formalities are out of the way, what is it you want here?” Abhartach said leaning back in his chair looking down his nose at them slowing his breathing.
Cur looked about the room which was grand in it’s relative squalor. A small secretive office with extravagant furnishings, a mix between a thieves hideout and a whore’s boudoir. The desk was high and he undoubtedly sat on a raised chair and made sure the guests chairs were shorter so he could look down on them.
“I paid you for the last job and I have no further use of you”. He said as he leaned forward clasping his hands dismissively in front of him as if discussing rug sales.
“The woman” Cur said.
“Ah yes” Abhartach said scratching the side of his nose with his pinky. “Well-“
“You set us up, there was a witch in the woods waiting for us” Tuan said merrily, no hint of accusation, he remarked on it as if finding a penny in mincemeat pie.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, who is this?” He asked the Firbolg.
Tuan without reservation jumped across the table transforming in mid air into the from of a wolf taking the dwarf chieftain by the throat.
The young dwarf who tried to frisk Cur put his hand on the Firbolg’s shoulder and pressed down trying to stop him from rising. Radiating his will downward.
Cur took the lads hand and pulled him down so he could take him by the scruff of the neck. Cur smashed his face smashed with a vicious indifference against Abhatach’s high desk, flailing a few of his teeth across the blotter. The unbridled and unwarranted cold savagery of it froze the room in amber for a few moments.
The bodyguards readied their cross bows.
“Wait” Abhartach strained lifting a hand.
The crossbow men lowered their aim.
Tuan took human form again and hopped off the desk smiling as if it was a little show he put on descending the high stage with a click of his heel.
“Out with it Abhartach, you work for Bres?” Cur scolded.
Abhartach rubbed his neck and smiled trying to laugh but only coughing. “Bres? You could say he works for me”.
“What fantasy is this?” Birog said.
Abhartach looked at her for a moment puzzled then back to Cur as if she hadn’t said anything at all.
“Surely he order you to kill the chieftains of the villages that wouldn’t pay his taxes?” Birog said almost to herself. Now in the dim darkness of this smokey room those words sounded so feeble and childish coming from her.
Abhartach became grim and started to breathe heavily. His face draining of colour and his eyes becoming long and hollow staring at nothing as he rubbed his neck. His face locked and expressionless as if he pictured himself somewhere else as he spoke in hollow tones. “If only that were the case” He said hauntingly.
“What do you mean” Birog asked.
He looked at her and saw nothing and licked his dry lips. He started breathing heavier and his neck became red as he rubbed it. “You don’t understand, the taxes aren’t Bres’ at all” He said almost whispering his eyes looked scared even thinking about it.
“Who left here?” Cur said.
Abhartach let his mouth hang open.
“If it isn’t you then- where are the children?” Birog asked.
Abhartach slammed his fist on his desk and screamed “I DON’T KNOW!” He calmed himself and said again “I don’t know, oh goddess save me I don’t know.”
He went on shyly “They just wanted me to choose, they knew of me, knew I would know the right villages to- I had no choice. They said they’d, they’d do the same to Slaghtaverty.” He breathed heavier and heavier and seemed to sink into his chair as if he were deflating.
“Who?” Cur asked.
“They didn’t want to do it like last time, they’re smarter now, they have a new king, they rule from the shadows. They wanted me to choose and cover it all up for them.” He spoke faster seemingly rambling.
“You used us” Tuan said.
“Yes, I thought if I could spread a rumour of a vampire or some such monster I could distract people from the truth. You just had to go there and cause a ruckus, kill a few elves and then they’d come for the rest but the blame would fall on the mysterious stranger.”
“Who are they?”
“It didn’t occur to me that I chose villages that refused to pay their tax, its just a coincidence, I had no choice- they wanted the children.” His eyes reddened and he spoke quickly as if it all had to come out at once, as if every word unburdened him somehow.
“You sent a messenger to meet us with our bounty, he lured us out to a witch, lured us into the woods.” Tuan mused.
“I sent no messenger, I always paid you here, it was them, don’t you understand, they were done with you, you were a loose end they had to tie up. Do you understand?”
“WHO?” Cur stood and slammed his massive hand on the desk towering over Abhertach his voice booming over the sounds of merriment below.
The night was darker than pitch, cold and moist. The cloaked figure could still hear the dampened merriments of the folk inside. He looked up at Abhartach’s office window and grinned.
He took something from the sleeve of his cloak and started to sprinkle it on the ground muttering some sort of incantation.
He then started to walk the street of the town, all in their beds but the tavern folk. Their chimneys slowly dying as the children slept soundly their mother pecking them on the forehead. Their fathers tucking them in.
The figure continued to walk, humming to himself as a bluish fog started to cover the town of Slaghtaverty.