It was evident that the tavern was dingy, but someone had made the attempt to at least keep it orderly if not clean. The sentiment that the interior was always dark no matter the time of day was enhanced by the two small windows, their glass covered in what appeared to be a permanent thin light green film. Across the way from the door was a proportionally large bar with only one end lightened dismally by a small brass lantern. Only three customers besides Gnaeus were present in the tavern, all of them seated around one small table in the back corner. Beside them was a small wooden slightly tilted staircase that led upwards to the second floor. Talking to Gnaeus from behind the bar was a rather weighty woman, her face flat of emotion as she listened to Gnaeus’s as he told her his order in his gruff manner.
Unconsciously gripping the strap of his bag over his left shoulder in a nervous, white-knuckled hold, Michael gingerly came to sit in the seat beside Gnaeus, looking determinedly at the bar top, convincing himself that the nausea he felt in his stomach was not akin to sea-sickness. “So you two gents are interested in a room for the night?” The woman intoned in a gravelly voice as she pushed two full mugs of ale towards both Gnaeus and Michael. Some of the foam from Michael’s mug sloshed over the top, trailing down the side of the glass. He felt his stomach mimic the motion. The woman’s words came from miles away to his sea-battered ears. “I’ll get my husband right on that to give you two a key. How long are you staying?”
“Just a single night,” Gnaeus replied as he sipped off the white foam of his mug. “We’ll be gone after daybreak. And breakfast.”
The woman nodded as she turned her back on the two men and walked out from behind the bar, disappearing into a doorway from which the smell of warm cooking was radiating. But the homey smell was making Michael’s stomach only increasingly upset.
“Take a sip,” Gnaeus said as he slightly elbowed Michael’s arm, indicating the mug on the counter that now had a thick ring of foam around its base. “You’ll feel better.”
“Gnaeus, we should not be here,” Michael stated again, fixing the heels of his boots against the rungs of his stool that could not have possibly been swaying with the rise and fall of a ship at sea. “This place…feels too familiar for comfort. No good will come of us staying here.”
Gnaeus gestured roughly with his hand. “Well, then, boy, if you don’t like it, leave! I’ll catch up with you in the city. I am in the mood for some real food. Take one of the horses and go.”
“Gnaeus, it’s dangerous—”
Gnaeus shrugged his shoulders as though deflecting off his companion’s words. “Now you just sound like a woman worrying ‘bout nothing. Danger won’t find us here. We left it far behind us when we left port.”
From the mood that was left over from their rather quick argument, Michael could tell that Gnaeus would neither listen nor say anymore. He was satisfied with where he was, and what he was going to do. There was no way that he would budge now.
Michael frowned down at his ale. He could see some of his reflection in the amber-colored drink, and his scowl deepened even more at it. Every part of his being was screaming at him to leave, that there was too much seamanship about this inn for any sort of comfort. If he did stay the night, Michael knew he would not sleep. He was filled with dread at the notion of what his mind might churn up if he dared to close his eyes in such an unnatural place.
A rumble of thunder sounded relatively close, the threat of oncoming adverse weather. Michael had to fight the urge that shook his entire body in the hard-to-die habit of instantly jumping up at the sound of an oncoming storm. He tightened his fingers around the sticky mug, feeling his hardened callouses pressed against the glass, physical trophies earned from pulling and yanking his weight around on the various sizes of ropes that composed the rigging.
He licked his lips, his mouth suddenly gone parchment dry. He felt his ears prick as the wind began to rise and push against the sides of this titled inn. He was not aware of his body hunching up closer onto the bar, of his head slouching between his shoulders and further down over his drink. A stab of sharp pain made him realize absentmindedly that his teeth had been biting hard into the side of his cheek. With forceful thinking, he told himself to stop and ran his tongue over the injured flesh.
He took a sip of the bitter beer that tasted no different from salty seawater and heard Gnaeus as the man cleared his throat.
The wind suddenly lashed at the building with a burst of vengeance. Rain began to slam straight in the thick, green panes of the windows. As the darkness of the storm filled the room it then seemed to Michael that they were trapped, hounded into this space by unseen forces that would condemn them to this wooden, cursed place.
It would become their grave.
“Boy, are you alright?”
The woman’s words shot into Michael’s crowded mind, and his eyes shot up quickly, his stomach clenching. “Yes, ma’am, I’m…I’m good.”
Her thick eyebrows narrowed as she picked up a rag from the counter. “You look a little peaky to me, young man. I don’t want anyone sick with something funny in my inn.”
“No, ma’am, I’m fine. Just a little sick with hunger,” Michael tried a small, weak smile and lifted his ale mug. Against the will of his stomach, he forced himself to take a sip of the lukewarm liquid, and as he painfully swallowed it, he nearly ended up spewing it all out as Gnaeus profoundly clapped him on his tensed back.
“He gets like this when his belly’s empty,” the older man said, shrugging up at the woman. “It’s nothing serious.”
“Hmm,” the woman said, obviously not quite convinced. She lowered the glass she had been wiping. “Philip!” She suddenly shouted, causing Michael to jump and spill more of his ale. “Get in here!”
“Yes, ma’am?” a man’s voice preceded the small round head that poked around the doorway from the kitchen.
“Philip, where is the key that I asked you for?”
“I’m getting it right now, ma’am! Right now!” The round head disappeared back into the room beyond the door, and the woman threw her rag down onto the counter and followed, muttering to herself.
As she bustled out of sight, Gnaeus leaned over and said in an undertone to Michael, “That is one woman that will never be pleased, no matter how many men she has running under her feet day in and day out.” He took a large sip from his mug and glanced over to his young companion. “Buck up a little there, will you boy? I don’t want to get tossed out of here on account of you looking ‘peaky.’”
“Yes, Gnaeus,” Michael conceded, even though the room about him had begun to sway uncomfortably. It was at that point that the rain began to pelt sharply at the tiny glass panes of the windows while it thudded loudly against the sides of the inn’s wooden structure. The wind had picked up enough that it caused the walls of the building to creak as it endured each sudden and powerful gust. Michael felt his head grow heavy and gravitate towards the bar top. He swore he could hear the moaning and groaning of the masts and rigging that were always so vulnerable to the temper of any storm from somewhere up above.
“You are honest in your confession that he is not infected with any sort of sickness or curse?” The woman’s voice jarred against the increasing fuzziness in Michael’s head and he fought to open his eyes and lift his face. “Just last week all of my chickens died after a curious stranger stayed for three nights here. I am not up to taking any more chances. If you are ill, you are out!” She vehemently pointed with a finger towards the door.
“Ma’am, would I be with him if he were sick?” Gnaeus said, placing an oddly gentle hand onto Michael’s back. “Would we not be panicking about instead of having a couple drinks here at your bar if the boy was as sick as you fear? I’m telling you, ma’am, that as soon as he gets some decent food in his belly, all will be well. You have nothing to worry for.”
Still highly skeptical by the look on her stern and wrinkled face, the woman replied, “You sure as St. Peter be tellin’ me the truth, sir. If any more of my animals die, it will be you that will be paying, a pound per each.” She glared at Gnaeus in such a way that made the normally extremely confident man sit up and back from her eyes. Without looking away, she slammed a big iron key down onto the bar top. “Here. This is your room. Second door on your left at the top of the stairs. Don’t. Destroy. Anything.”
So saying, she shuffled back through the kitchen door.
Gnaeus exhaled heavily as he picked up the thick key and placed it into his pocket. Under his breath he murmured, “Of course the woman has to be a minion of Lucifer. Of course she has to own the only inn for miles around. Of course she takes an immediate dislike to us.” He slapped Michael roughly on the back, perhaps more forcefully than was intended. “Sit up, boy! At least look like you are just famished from hunger. What has gotten into you, anyway? Eat a funny fruit or something?”
“It’s this…place,” Michael tried again, denying how much the room had begun to spin about him. “Gnaeus, I’m telling you—”
“Just walking into a place cannot make you sick, boy. I’ve lived my life all around curses and diseases. There is nothing anymore that can fool me when it comes to illness.” Gnaeus sipped from his ale. “Sit up and try at least to look healthy. I fear what the woman will do to you if you decline to eat her cooking.”
Michael grimaced and did as Gnaeus instructed. However, it must not have been enough for Gnaeus physically reached over and pulled Michael up by the shoulders as the woman came through the kitchen door, her hands carrying two plates that had a slice of pork, potatoes, carrots, and a large portion of gravy over everything...
“Never seen anyone become so grey before from hunger,” was her remark as she set the plates down. She gave a fork and a knife to each of them before striding away to retreat through the doorway once more.
The storm outside increased dramatically as Michael picked up his fork and poked at the rather small slice of pork on his plate. Rain began to splatter down the chimney, causing the flames in the fire to hiss and spit. With each burst of sound, Michael felt an answering muted pain resound within his head.
“I can’t do this,” Michael said, laying his fork down with a loud clatter into his plate. “Gnaeus, give me the key. I’m going to bed.”
“Boy, you’re sure?”
“Eat my plate, if you want to make her happy. I don’t mind.” Michael stood and had to wait a moment before bending down and picking up his bag. “I think it would be safer for me not to eat anything at all. Best way for seasickness.”
“Seasick—” Gnaeus began as he handed over the weighty key to Michael’s clammy hands. “But you never got seasick. You were one of the few that never did, on any voyage you made.”
“Yes. Good evening, Gnaeus. Hope the wind don’t blow down the rigging—I mean, the roof.”
Was it with more concern than ever that Gnaeus watched him turn and walk away? Michael didn’t feel like turning around to find out. But it was at the foot of the stairs that his heart nearly burst through the ribcage of his chest. For, as Michael passed by the three men sitting at the table by the stairs, he pasued, grabbing at the railing of the stairs as a wave of vertigo rush over him. His bag slipped from his shoulder, and he gasped, his free hand gripping at his chest.
When his breath returned, Michael went to stand upright but found that his arm was being held.
Being held by the man sitting in the deepest corner of shadow.
A sudden cold sweat broke out of every pore that Michael possessed as he looked down at his captor.
Not bothering to lift his stare from the empty corner across the room, the ancient man spoke with a voice that was at best a heavy whisper, any tone and color it had once possessed having long since vanished.
“The sea…” he rasped in a painful way, “…It is in your gait. It is in your temperament. It is in…your soul.”
Michael pulled his arm roughly back as though he had been burned. “I—I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
The man’s gaze then turned from Michael, his two gnarled hands slowly re-wrapping themselves around his drink and he sat, looking straight ahead as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Glancing back up to see if Gnaeus had noticed this strange encounter, Michael found that his companion’s back was already turned towards him, the large man’s shoulder working as he moved his fork from the plate to his mouth.
Striving to convince himself that what had just happened was only a fever-trick within his heated mind, Michael turned and flew up the stairs as quickly as he had once climbed the network of ropes that had tied together the bottom half of the ship to the top half. Barely even pausing long enough to sufficiently jam the key into the lock and turning it to enter the room, Michael threw his bag down at the foot of the closer of the two small beds and flung himself onto the thickened mildewed covers of the cold hard mattress.
Even though it looked like a bed, felt like a bed, and smelled like a bed, Michael could not deny the sensation that he was swinging slowly back and forth in a tightly knotted hammock as his fatigue pulled him down into an odd and fitful sleep, studded with odd images and half-remembered whispers.