|A Timely Inn
by !Super Cat
Gasparro was keeping one wary eye on the stranger at the far table. Trouble. He had a feel for it. Night like this one, with the wind howling chill down off the steppes, and not a soul through the pass out of Midland for a month. Maybe longer. Times past, the common room would've been thick with travellers, tall tales, news. Times past. The Black Ram had always been a little run down. But now it was run down to the ground, and empty into the bargain. If people came, they didn't linger. They drank and left, or they wrapped themselves up in their cloaks and trudged on up the stairs to a room. A skittish glance and the words, "Hard times," was as much as came out of them.
The stranger was no different. He kept himself to himself, eating plain stew methodically from the wooden bowl that Gasparro had slopped down in front of him. He ate with his massive shoulders hunched over the meal as if to ward off the world. Even so, Gasparro had noticed the crossbow peeping out from the shadowed folds of the man's cloak, and the bulge under it that spoke of a battle axe, or a great sword. He'd thinned his lips. Stayed quiet. It wasn't his business unless something came of it. But he kept that one eye on the stranger, noting that the one or two other customers were instinctively doing the same, staying wary, steering clear.
"Leaving?" Gasparro said to the old soldier in the corner, who was rising from his chair.
"Getting out," said the soldier shortly, and that meant one less customer to walk through the door. "You should pack it up, too."
"Can't leave all this," said Gasparro, and the soldier grunted and made for the door.
Gasparro had owned this place fifteen years or more, since the days when the Black Rams had been famous Tuda fighters, three thousand cavalry strong. In those days, he'd been a talker with an interest in merc affairs. Enough of an interest to name his inn for the Black Rams, and to hang their standard over his door. Behind the bar was the king's crest (he was no patriot, but no fool), but on the far wall was Gasparro's pride and joy: the crossed banners of all the companies that had passed through here, and some that hadn't, silks and colours that with time had faded, many of them just a hanging scrap of material now. Gasparro, who had forearms like tree trunks, and who'd spit on the dirt tavern floor, would turn stern and serious if a customer dared wiped their grimy fingers on that wall. There's a hundred stories there, he'd say. If you value your hands, wipe 'em on your pants, like everyone else.
Expecting no further trade for the night, Gasparro jumped when the huge oak door slammed open. But his first thought when he saw the three men standing in the doorway was one of relief. The inn was almost deserted. The merchant and the merc had also finished their drinks and departed. All that remained were the stranger and an old, old man with runny eyes, name of Old Pate, who was all gums and wheezing cackle. Pate had been a miller until the day the king's men had raped and killed his daughter, and then he'd become nothing at all, just a crazy old man with a ceaseless, mirthless laugh and nowhere to go except the Black Ram, where Gasparro let him sit sometimes. Gasparro didn't scare easy, but he sure didn't relish a night spent alone with a crazy man and that black-cloaked stranger.
Then he saw the king's crest the three men wore on their cloaks. Got a look at their faces. Two of them rough as nails, the dregs of the king's company. Both armed, one with a spike, the other with a huge mace. The third man was younger, though higher ranked by the look of him; and there was something strange about the young one, something in his eyes that made the blood run cold.
"What's your name, son?" said Gasparro, friendly enough.
"Remssssey," one of the rougher looking men answered for him, his voice a low hiss and growl.
Remsey was peeling off his gloves, and looking about himself. "You don't keep a woman?"
"Used to keep one," said Gasparro slowly, thinking it best not to tell Remsey what had happened to her. Old Pate in the corner was cackling; these king's men worked on his madness like a finger pushing at an open wound. Gasparro prayed for silence. The only thing you could do with king's men was shut up and hope. And normally Gasparro would have walked over to greet them, given them special treatment considering who they were, but a prickling aversion was preventing him from drawing any closer to Remsey.
"What, your customers too much for her?"
"Something like that."
Old Pate was louder now, his runny eyes running over.
"Someone shut that old man up," said Remsey in a bored tone. The shorter of Remsey's men lumbered over and seized Pate by the hair. He held Pate in one massive hand, the metal spike in the other.
"No--" Gasparro said, stupidly.
Remsey casually lifted a crossbow and pointed it at Gasparro. "No?"
Spike grinned like a slavering dog, and rammed his iron spike up under Pate's jaw. Pate's eyes bulged, but he didn't stop making that crazed sound. He kept gurgling for a long time, his cackles wet spews of blood, until Spike, after a sharp glance from Remsey, broke his neck and flung his body to the ground.
Gasparro felt a sweat break out over his skin, clammy and cold
"What do you want?" he said in a hollow voice. All he could see was the arrow tip. There was a time when no man would ever have thought to hold a crossbow on Gasparro of the Black Ram, but those days were long gone. King's men took what they wanted, killed who they pleased.
"I'm going to clear this place out," said Remsey. "And then I want you to make me a drink. And then I'm going to kill you." And he smiled slowly, with his freakish, dead eyes. Gasparro, feeling a huge gaping pit of terror opening beneath his feet, realized what was strange about Remsey. The two rougher men were just brutes. But Remsey was--Remsey wasn't--
The taller of Remsey's two men, the one who carried the giant mace, was advancing on the stranger in the corner.
"You just gonna sit there?" said Mace, whose voice was slurred, as though his jaw didn't work. "Or you gonna stand up and fight."
The stranger's chewing was slow. When he finished his mouthful, he dipped his spoon back into the bowl.
"I'm eating," he said distinctly, without looking up.
Gasparro thought, oh shi--
Mace growled and brought his giant weapon up, swung it, once, twice, and then smashed it down into the table next to the stranger's. Wood splinters flew out in every direction. A twisted look passed over the stranger's shadowed face as Mace started his second swing. And in one smooth movement, the stranger stood, his cape whirling back from the great weapon that Gasparro had noted earlier, and smashed the mace out of it's path with a single swing of the largest sword Gasparro had ever seen.
Mace blinked in surprise. Just stood there, blinking. Gasparro, mind working oddly, noted that the edges of the stranger's sword were blunt. He wondered how the sword cut, and then he had his answer in bloody motion. The sword cut not because its sharpness, but because of its sheer weight, which gave it a momentum that could rip through anything.
"Whaddaya think you're--" Mace began, shaking off the blink, but that was as far as he got before the stranger's sword sheared his body completely in half, blood exploding and the two halves of the man hitting the floor.
"I said, I'm eating," the stranger said.
A weird, high pitched sound escaped Gasparro's throat.
Spike's eyes were wide and rimmed with white and bloodshot, like seeing his friend cut in half had made him all crazy. With a scream, he ran at the stranger, who, without even a glance, fired a volley arrows from some contraption pinned to his arm. The first two bolts hit Spike in the chest, and the third took him in the throat, driving him back and thunking into a wooden support behind him, pinning him there.
The stranger looked at Remsey. "Two down," he said, grimly.
"Human," said Remsey, "they were nothing." As Gasparro watched, immobile with horror, a gash appeared, widening from Remsey's neck to his groin. His chest began to split open. Thick tentacles swarmed at the split and Remsey's face also began to reform. "My kind has slaughtered yours for ten thousand years," Remsey said. From the gash, the tentacles gushed out towards the cloaked stranger. "My kind has come again, to destroy." Deep inside Remsey's belly, Gasparro thought for a sickening second that he saw a flash of teeth. Remsey's voice issued from this grotesque, new mouth, not from his human one. "My kind has come to rule."
The stranger changed his grip on the mighty blade.
"Your kind is pissing me off," he said, and threw his sword.
It was sudden. Just as the crossbow bolt had speared Spike through the throat, now the stranger's sword drove right through Remsey and carried him backwards, burying itself a good foot or so into the plaster wall. The tentacles dropped, making a sound like meat hitting the floor. Remsey was still moving, though, making choked, surprised noises and scrabbling with bloody fingers at the blade.
The stranger sauntered up. Pulled his sword out of the wall with Remsey still attached, so that Remsey, with a wet exhalation of breath, slid down almost to the hilt. For a moment, he and the stranger were eye to eye. Looking Remsey in the eye, the stranger brutally twisted the sword in his guts. Then he pushed Remsey off the blade dismissively, let him drop to the floor.
Gasparro drew in a rattling breath.
The tavern was wrecked, blood sprayed all over Gasparro's precious wall. A bloody section of plaster crumbled near the bar where the stranger's sword had pierced it, the cracks emanating out from that point. Broken shards of the table that the giant mace had smashed through were strewn from one end of the inn to the other. Blood was pooling out all over the floor. Minor details included Remsey's crossbow now lying on the ground, the lifeless tentacles, which Gasparro would have to step over if he moved, and the blood dripping off the point of the stranger's sword.
"Huh," said the stranger, looking over at his table. His bowl had been jostled enough that the last of his stew had splattered over the table and was oozing down onto the floor.
Gasparro looked at the wreckage, then at the two halves of Mace's body. Then he looked at Spike, pinned to a wooden support by a crossbow bolt in his throat, his bloodshot eyes bulging.
People had been killed in here before. Even so.
"You a merc?" he said, hoarsely.
Remsey's body was slumped in a sitting position, a great red stain spreading beneath him. His front was soaked and spattered. Big sword like that, you twist it in a man's gut, things get messy. Remsey was making wet, gurgling sounds, his glassy expression one of disbelief as he died. He had two handfuls of tentacles and guts and he looked like he couldn't understand why he couldn't shove them back in his belly.
Gasparro said, "Don't know if there's any more stew."
The stranger was wiping off his sword. Not with a clean cloth and oil, but on the bottom edges of his cape. Gasparro got a look at him then, a flash of worn clothes under the cape, a chest broad enough to support the muscle needed to heft that sword. The stranger's face was like a scowling mountain crag, and one of his eyes had been torn out some time in his past, there was a mass of scar tissue across the left half of his face that he did not wear a patch to hide.
"The old man," said Gasparro. "He was one of the regulars. One of the last of the regulars. Not many pass this way anymore. Not many left here, either."
The stranger shrugged. "Same everywhere."
Gasparro said, "Guess I owe you one. Still, you sure made a mess of my bar."
The stranger dropped something on the table which, when Gasparro peered at it, turned out to be three banged up gold coins. He bit at one of the coins in disbelief. Gold No one paid with gold these days. Then again, no one fought king's men. And no one beat creatures like Remsey, who were driving the last of the humans from their lands. He looked up again quickly. Sure, the bar was in a hell of a state, and would take days of work to clean up, but Gasparro had gone from a dead innkeeper to a merely busy innkeeper. He was really warming to this stranger.
"What's this?" The stranger was standing at the now bloodstained banner wall, and his eyes had caught on a piece of silk. It was blue and white. Had been blue and white. The white was now tatters of brown. The blue was still blue though. Blue-ish. If he'd been challenged on that point, Gasparro would have said, gruffly, Blue enough.
"That one? Ehhhh . . . must be ten years ago now. Unusual name. Let me think. Taka--something. Taka--Taka--"
"Taka no Dan," said the stranger.
The Band of the Hawk.
"That was it. They were a merc group who rose to fame in Midland. I'll tell you--at a pitched battle on the border, they beat the Black Rams, a group the king named after this bar."
It was an old joke that even Gasparro hadn't used in a long time.
"I remember," the stranger said without smiling, his eyes on the wall, his blunt fingers reaching out tentatively for the blue, then dropping back to his side.
Gasparro's brows rose.
The stranger said, "I used to . . . I used to come from Midland."
"Huh," said Gasparro. "Seems like these days bad luck only happens to good people." And maybe he meant that as kind of a joke too, because who'd ever want to have come from Midland? Real bad luck to have been born there.
But the stranger seemed caught up in some private reflection, gazing at the banner. "Good people," he said, softly. Then his expression darkened. He spoke to himself, or to the scrap of blue. "You were never 'good people'. You were the bad luck that happened to us all."
And then he said, "Griffith."
The wind broke loose outside at that name, a torrent that banged at distant shutters. Other sounds on the wind too, best ignored, and hadn't there been another story about the Hawks? A long ago story of their leader, the White Hawk, a commoner, or had he been a noble? Or a Midland knight? He'd been killed, or he had disappeared, or--there had been some scandal. The ending of the story in Gasparro's mind was unclear. The white hawk and his lieutenant, a berserker with the strength of ten men, who carried a giant sword.
Gasparro shivered, an unpleasant feeling crawling over his skin, and wondered at his sudden urge to tear the banner from the wall.
The stranger was halfway to the door.
"I never knew what happened to the Hawks," said Gasparro.
"Lucky you," said the stranger.