As soon as the sole of his boot connected with the thick slanted step, Michael stopped dead in his progress. The pit of his stomach fell away as a grave knowing seeped into his mind. With great dread he glanced upwards at the façade of the building. The sight, the scent, and the lingering chill that shuddered throughout the structure rising lopsidedly up before him was all wrong, improbable.
It was impossible.
The sea’s soaking touch coated this small wooden building. It was faint…but it was there inside the structure, like a memory that the mind had long since forgotten but had regurgitated to the surface by unpleasant, ugly, external stimuli. The briny smell of sea salt was encrusted into the timber of the inn, coating his hand as soon as Michael had placed his palm upon the railing. The planks of wood were grey and warped into a weary mold that only the constant blast of oceanic wind was capable of designing.
But how could such an inland building show such a particular past?
They had traveled far to be so distant from the sea.
Michael had made sure of that.
Nonetheless, his guts twisted in his middle as the faded green sign above his head creaked stiffly in the growing wind. The young man lifted his hand towards the long handle of the door latch, but he froze with his fingers just above it, a cold sweat suddenly causing his heavy winter clothes to stick tight to his skin. His mouth became incredibly dry.
“What’s your problem, boy?”
Michael started and turned to see his traveling company, a man a good thirty years his senior, standing below the granite steps. His dark eyes were slightly narrowed as he watched Michael. “Open the door and go inside.” he offered in his deep voice.
Michael blinked, frowned, and glanced upwards, at the swinging green sign. The silhouette of what once must have been some sort of large bird could still be made out against the vanishing, peeling paint.
The ex-sailor could feel the older man’s impatience rising. “Are you sure this is where we are supposed to be staying?” Michael called out uncertainly. His voice sounded unnaturally thin to his ears.
“This is the only inn within acres of land, m’boy. If you are suggesting that we spend one more night under a hedge on some farmer’s property—”
“It may be better than staying a single moment here, Gnaeus,” Michael said, taking a step until the thin and brittle wooden railing of the staircase pressed into the small of his back. “I do not think this is where we should stay, considering what we are leaving behind.”
“Do you hear the words you are saying, son?” Gnaeus came to stand beside Michael, the old seafarer glancing down sideways at him. “You are speaking nonsense. There is not one blasted drop about the sea life in this inn! How close to the mountains do we have to be? This road we are on ends with their feet.” He gestured roughly to the north of where they stood. Not far off, Michael could see how the land rose abruptly, violently, up into the sky, jagged edges of earth stretching up into the bellies of the thickening clouds. It looked, felt like a barrier unlike any other Michael had ever seen.
Yet, what is the difference between a towering wave and a rearing mountain when one is trying to flee? Limits, barriers, fences, all.
“And there’s no civilized comfort to be found through them until we get to the other side.” Gnaeus finished, slapping his heavy hand onto the younger man’s shoulder in a rather forceful way. “No crazy thoughts of yours are going to keep me from a decent meal and a warm bed. You have the liberty to sleep in the barn or that very bush over there for all that I could give a rat’s ass about.” He pushed Michael away from where he stood at the threshold in much the same manner as he dismissed his charge’s worry from his own mind. Gnaeus pushed the door open and stepped into the common room of the salty inn.
Michael bit his bottom lip and looked into the darkness that his older friend had passed into. A nearly overwhelming smell of roasted pork and stale ale rushed out to greet him and the young man felt his stomach rumble hopefully in response. Yet, underneath those heartwarming smells and the distant mumble of talk, the briny tang of salt air hung just within. Even that light suggestion of it formed a taste of sourness that coated his dry tongue. And ever so faintly, just beneath the growing sound of his heartbeat within his own head, Michael could feel more than hear the haunting noise of distant surf crashing and retreating against a faraway shore. The faint waves were pulling at him at the same time they pushed him back, a craving and a yearning and a denial of all that he had sought to flee.
The most unpleasant sensation of all, though, was the feeling that he was staring down once more into the darkened hold of a ship still tied up at dock, the looming hatchway rocking back and forth as the body of the wooden vessel moved along, possessed with the pulling current of the ocean water.
His palms growing sweaty on the straps of his bag, Michael swallowed in vain at a lump in his throat. Feeling as though he was stepping into a grave he had once turned his back on, the once-sailor took a deep breath and stepped down into the darkness.