The innkeeper’s lower lip wobbled a bit as he wiped out a tankard that was probably half composed of black mold. The fat fuck had to be keener than he looked to run the only bar in a shit town that lived off the whims of travelers and thieves, but he didn’t look particularly keen.
“I’ll do it for four,” I said, holding up four fingers to the man behind the bar. “Four clips.”
The irony was, Caer Tieran wasn’t in the middle of nowhere. The irony was, Caer Tieran was too close to anywhere to be of any good. Two hours’ ride to the south on horseback would take you to the former crossroads, Barre-On-The-Reeds. And an hour north up the Highroad brought you to Gideon’s Hollow, the official resupply point for caravans heading north into Angelshire. Caer Tieran was too close for messengers, too far for travelers on foot. Exactly why we’d chosen it.
The barman set the tankard down, threw the towel over his shoulder. It would have been debonair if he hadn’t had such a gross face.
“Three,” he said. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, to the dark little room behind the bar where someone was frying something that might have tasted better before they washed the mud off, and nodded at the girl wiping tables at the far end of the room. “I’ve got mouths to feed, Slate. Can’t be throwing away money.”
I looked at him for a minute, raised my eyebrows, and looked over my shoulder.
At the table by the door, a different, uglier man was sitting, well on his way through his bottle, watching the back half of the barmaid with the kind of interest nuns were meant to give scripture. He had a hatchet lying on the table beside his hand, and he had the kind of scars on his face that suggested he used that hatchet on people more than trees.
I turned back to the barkeep, rubbed the black stubble around my chin.
“See and maybe I should wait a bit longer,” I said, keeping my voice cool. “Till he grabs for her again. Think that’s better? Or maybe, you’d like to have a go at throwing him out yourself? He’s fairly drunk by now, I’m sure you’d only lose a couple of fingers.”
He glowered at me. I flashed him a snotty, wolfish smile.
“Three,” he said. “And a pint.”
“Four,” I said back, sweetly, with the same snotty smile. “Pint and a meal.”
I looked back over my shoulder.
“Four and a meal, and I get to dent your table.” I ran my fingers through my hair, picked at the scalp, pretending to consider, though I could feel the tension in the room. If I don’t get a deal now, one of the others will do it for free.
I saw the barkeep’s expression change, looking over my shoulder, as the axeman at the table raised his voice.
“COME ON OVER HERE, DARLING,” he said, and slapped one hand on the table loudly, beckoning to her with the other. He was missing most of his little finger. “COME WARM UP A COLD MAN’S LAP.”
There were only two other people in the place, and they both turned to look at the man with distinctly chilly expressions.
I looked back at the man behind the bar, whose resolve was fading. I didn’t pay much attention to what the barmaid said in response, but I couldn’t avoid hearing the drunkard. “COME ON, LASSIE, OR I’LL BRING YOU OVER.”
My lip twitched. Heat boiled in my chest, like bile rising. Damn it.
“Three,” I said, low and grim. “And a pint. And a meal. And I get to dent your table.”
I knew he was going to say yes, saw it in the way he was looking at his daughter. I wiped a clammy hand on my trousers, offered it to him.
He held out his hand. I took it with mine, long and lanky, all bones and sinew like the palm of an elemental. We shook. His fingers were clammy with filth, hard to tell from what.
“Don’t kill him,” he said. “Don’t want his blood on my floor.”
I slapped my hands on the moldy bar and pushed to my feet.
I towered over the table, nearly hit my head on the iron chandelier with its array of rushlights. Even with that, the drunken axeman took his time realizing I was standing over him, casting a shadow over his drink. He looked up at me, blinked.
“Fuck are you,” he said. “Great swarthy bastard.”
He smirked at me. I spread my hands.
“Get out,” I told him. Best to be polite. Choirboy would bitch about it later if I’d just coldcocked the man without giving him a chance to back out.
My new drunken friend reached for his hatchet, opening his mouth to tell me to fuck off.
I slapped my right hand on the back of his head and put him right down onto the table. Music to my ears, the tinkle of falling bottles and the wet crack of a splitting scalp. His hand closed on the hatchet.
I boxed his ear, and he dropped the hatchet on the table. I let him flop about for a bit before I balled my fist up in his collar and dragged him to his feet. He was short, broad, and dense; I couldn’t help but think I looked like a stork eating a toad, dragging him out of his chair like this.
“Fuck,” he muttered, with surprising clarity under the circumstances.
I looked back over my shoulder once I’d satisfied myself that the man wasn’t going to pick up his hatchet and take it to me. The barkeep was standing safely away, with his hands balled up uselessly in his apron. Nervous little wretch. One of the two other customers was watching from beneath his hood, eyes gleaming in the dark.
“He paid his tab yet?” I said, and nodded to the drunk. The barkeep shook his head. I dug one hand into the man’s pockets while he slapped limply at my face. His fingers tasted like stale beer and mud.
Lovely. There’s a new sensation for you, lass, I thought, though there was no response from Her. Haven’t had a man’s fingers in my mouth in ages.
I snorted, threw a handful of iron clips onto the table, and dragged my friend to the door, where he spat blood into my face. That was alright. Wasn’t the first time I’d had blood spat in my face, wouldn’t be the last. I broke his nose with an elbow, and I wasn’t gentle about it. His head might have hit the doorframe sometime in the process.
The door was closed, and my hands were full.
I nodded toward the door, and the barmaid was quick to take my meaning; she darted across the room and pulled it open. It was raining like hell outside, as it so often was. “Thanks, girl.”
“Who the fuck are you?” the axeman managed to say, thickly, through a faceful of blood.
“Look who’s awake!” I hit him again firmly, not to put him out, just to get his attention. “Dermot Slate. I see you back in this shithole again and I’ll stove you in like a cask at a wedding, understand me?”
He blew a few bubbles, didn’t say much else. I smiled at the barmaid, which made her look more anxious. Couldn’t blame her. I shoved him through the door, out onto the stoop, and threw him off into the mud.
I followed, to nudge his ribs a little with my boot.
It was a grey evening, looking like it would turn to another bitter night. Caer Tieran was not exactly bustling with life, only twelve low buildings along the Highroad and more farms scattered beyond, but there were a handful of people moving up and down the muddy streets like drowned rats in oilcloths and canvas. A few travelers were heading this way on foot, wrapped up in long cloaks, haunting in the fog.
Her voice slithered into my ear like a worm, a whisper, like a nagging worry that kept you up late into the night. The sound of it was so close that if She’d had breath to draw, it would have been on my neck. If I’d closed my eyes, I could have pictured Her, standing with a hand on my shoulder.
“Why was he doing that?” She asked, softly.
“He was drunk and bored.” I kicked the man in the ribs again, just for good measure. “And no one’s ever taught him to keep his hands to himself.”
“It’s not right, that he does that.”
“See and why don’t we tell him?” I said, and kicked the man again. “No matter, lass. He’s done. Maybe he’ll even learn his lesson.”
She was circling my vision, watching through my eyes, and it made my head itch on the inside, which was nearly intolerable. I looked back up at the street. “Anything catch your eye?”
“See and if something did, I’d be sure to tell you.” She could talk just like me as well, when She wanted, which was always fucking haunting. Made you stop and think. She even caught the short cadence. If She had spoken in more of a hungover growl, I wouldn’t have been able to tell Her from my own thoughts. Maybe She could mimic my thoughts, and I just didn’t know. Fuck.
“Right,” I said, and went back inside.
The barmaid had taken the iron clips off the table. She kept scrubbing the table, cleaning off the blood. She didn’t smile at me as I entered. I wouldn’t have smiled at me either.
She’d left the hatchet. As I reached for it, the barmaid shied away, and I didn’t blame her for that either, but no sense wasting a good hatchet. I took it, slid it through my belt. I dropped onto the barstool.
The barkeep had drawn my pint already, and slid it to me as I sat.
I sat down and took a drink. It was terrible. The tankard had mold in it. I held up three fingers.
He put three mostly-square iron clips on the bar. Wonder where he got those.
“The man you threw out had six clips in his pocket,” She said, and Her voice traveled from my right ear to my left, as if She was circling around behind my back while She spoke. That made my skin crawl. “I recognize those three from among them.”
Well, good for him, I thought. Sharper than he looks, this barkeeper.
I heard Her laugh. I pocketed two of the clips, tapped the third.
“Another beer, lad,” I said, and drained the rest of mine.
The bartender set my second beer down, and I swung away from the bar, to the table in the corner where two grim, desperate-looking people were hunched over their meals.
“Afternoon, lads,” I said cheerfully, slouching down in the only free chair. “How are we?”
The woman to my right wore a sleeveless quilt doublet, her hair cropped short like a man. She also sat a little taller than me in her chair. I straightened up.
“Why is her hair like that?” the lass murmured, in my right ear, the opposite side from Eris.
“Eris,” I asked. “You’re river folk?”
She eyed me sidelong. Normally I liked when women looked at me, even when the woman in question had arms bigger than my thigh. Plenty of folk in Frydain might have balked at that, but I’ve never been very particular about where I take my good times. Good times are scant enough without being picky.
“I am,” she said, wary.
I snorted, took another drink. One of the traders that run up and down the River Runing. They’re an odd bunch. Get killed by druids a lot, traveling between towns. Wear their hair short, so it doesn’t catch on a rope and tear their head off.
“I remember the river Runing,” the lass said, in an enthusiastic tone like an aurora on the winter sky. “I remember the light on the water. It was beautiful. Does this woman live there?”
“Glad you threw that fuck out,” Eris said. She had a rich, throaty voice, which right now was a little hoarser from all the brandy she was pouring down her throat. “I was half a moment from doing it myself.”
I doubt she lives there, lass, I thought.
“You wouldn’t have gotten a free beer out of it, if you had,” the Templar said dryly, looking at me across the table. “Trust Dermot Slate to haggle over clips.”
Compact, stocky, about a head shorter than I was. Dense, in the way that glacial granite was dense. He had noble features, grey eyes, and a very small scar on the left side of his chin that added to his good looks, rather than marring them. I also knew for a fact that he had fine, golden hair, worn long, though it was hidden beneath his hood. A handsome lad.
Hated that, frankly. Would have been more comfortable with an uglier man. Someone like me, long and dark and ragged, with a wolf smile and blood under his fingernails.
“Have to stay in business, choir boy.” I lifted my mug to him in a toast, gave him my most irritating smile.
“It wasn’t about the beer, Valraven,” Eris said. He cut her off before she could finish.
“I’ve told you before.” His voice was sharp. Eris had a look on her face like she’d put her foot down on a branch and found it was an adder.
“Sorry,” she said. “Aidan.”
It was silent at our little table of bastards for a moment.
“Wasn’t it?” Aidan’s gaze flicked to me, measuring. “About the beer.”
I took a long, loud sip of beer, swallowed a little air on the way down, and belched at him.
“Wasn’t it?” I asked him. “I made two clips into the bargain. Sounds all right to me.”
“Liar,” the lass in my head whispered. I ignored Her.
Aidan shook his head, dismissing me. Between his hands, under the ratty cloak, the seven-pointed silver star of the Church glittered on his chest.
“We’d better move on,” he pushed his bowl aside, hardly touched. “If we were seen at the crossroads…”
“You paranoid fuck,” I said. “Riders on our trail? We only left Barre-on-the-Reeds this morning. You’d think this was your first time committing treason.”
Aidan cast a cold, lethal glare in my direction. If this was an ordinary circumstance, I imagine I might have been dead before I hit the ground, talking like this to a Templar.
“It is,” he said, quietly.
“Whoops,” I finished my beer, knocked the mug on the table. “Well, isn’t my face red.” I rose to my feet. “Half a sec, just off to get a third.”
The door to the outside opened, scraping a little on sodden floorboards. Six men in chainmail and red tunics entered, bearing seven-pointed silver stars on their breasts.
“I recognize those!” She said, sounding pleased with Herself. “Soldiers of the Church of Saint Kendrick.”
I sat back down.
Aidan looked at me across the table. His face was expressionless.
“Shut up,” I said.