It was on the sixth day that Eryn uncurled from the depths of her iron place and found the village astir once more. Margaret had brought her milk and bread this morning, her worn plump cheer openly replaced with a troubled brow and anxious eyes. She told her of how a strange man had arrived late last night at the Brandied Pig, like a winter shadow out of the autumn rains. He had ensconced himself in a corner seat, ignoring the open stares of the villagers and the chilly silence that fell.
The man was neither tall nor wide of build, but outsiders were far from ordinary in these parts and times, so his presence had drawn every eye in the room. The barkeep, Iven, had hailed him without so much as a gesture in reply. He did not ask for drink or bed, but remained hunched over the empty table, his face and attire shrouded by a thick grey traveller’s cloak that swept down to the floor.
Curiosity had quickly turned to wariness, then to a dark fear, and the common room had emptied a short time thereafter. All had left, save him, and there in the inn did he stay the entire night and morning. It wasn’t right or normal, said Margaret as she wrung her creased hands, for a man not to speak his intent when he entered an unfamiliar town, much less not speak at all. Not normal at all.
Eryn had listened blankly as her caretaker puttered about the room, lamenting absently about this new omen of misfortune as she tidied and re-tidied the few knickknacks on the shelf and wiped down the spotless wardrobe face. However, a single detail, mentioned almost as an afterthought, caused Eryn to rouse, her glazed look sharpening into focus as she looked up at nothing in particular.
If Margaret had been any less preoccupied by her own chatter, she might have noticed the spark that glinted in her charge’s eyes, or the slight tensing of a young neck. When she left the room, muttering worry and doom, Eryn slipped out from under her patchy blanket. Her muscles were feeble and stiff, and when her thin legs tried her weight – for the first time in almost a week – she tumbled back onto the straw mattress with a noiseless grunt.
After a few tries she managed to stand, and within ten minutes she was walking unsteadily. She stepped on the large chest below the window, testing its sturdiness. It creaked wearily but did not buckle, not even when she put both feet on it.
Breakfast untouched, Eryn climbed gingerly over the window sill and dropped down, her legs crumpling weakly as she landed on the soft earth. But she did not cry out. Rising once more, she set out to find out more about this mysterious stranger.
She quickly found that any consistent description of the man was impossibly tainted by dramatic license, as was so often characteristic of village scut. Carl, the wrinkled and browned tanner, swore to her that the rain, gentle and warm all evening, had swelled into a storm as the stranger entered, scattering wet leaves and grit across the floorboards. The tavern girl, Ella, said that his face was naught but shadow, and as she approached to serve him she caught a glimpse of red eyes and white teeth. She’d dropped her mugs in fright, and now refused to return to her duties until the stranger departed.
Even young Henri, usually stoic and level-headed, had told her about how the fire in the hearth had flickered wildly as the stranger entered, its serpent tongues licking in his direction with the eagerness of reunion. The stranger’s shadow, he said grimly, had reached towards the hearth, instead of away from, as if in response.
Exaggerations. Senseless embellishment, she thought. And she recalled how, not three weeks back, Carl himself had told anyone who would listen about the swarm of ghostly hands that had attacked him on the road from Bellsworth, spooking his horse and stealing the cloak off his back. Much to his chagrin, and to the snickering relief of the villagers, the miller found the tattered garment the next morning, tangled up in the grasping branches of an overhanging elm.
Scared folk will invent a dragon to explain a hot day, she mulled as she walked through the town square. The world was twisted enough already, even without fanciful tales of otherworldly occurrences and imagined demons. She’d learned that the hard way.
But the one thing that everyone spoke of was his sword. A straight blade, long and sheathed, hung from the stranger’s right hip, breaking his enigmatic silhouette with a hard, discernible edge.
Eryn knew what a sword represented. A knife or a club meant nothing; any traveller with a hair of sense carried one or the other these days while on the road. A bow signified a hunter, a staff a druyd. But a sword? A sword was a dedication to violence. It served no other purpose than to fight, to maim and kill. It was unwieldy for anything but that.
It meant that the man was a fighter. And since no one had seen the attire that lay concealed under his cloak, there was a chance that he was not of the baron’s pay. Hope kindled in Eryn’s chest as she spoke to more and more people that had been present last night.
A ranger, then. Or a mercenary. She cared not. Only that he had a sword. If he had a sword, then he knew how to use it.
“A sword is not a tool for the farmer,” her father had lectured her once, when she had asked. “Nor the barkeep, nor the seamstress, nor the village drunk. They need shovelheads and barrel hoops, needles and jail bars. Those are their iron.”
She remembered the sweat that had drenched her back while she worked the bellows, feeding the greedy furnace with husky gusts of cool air. Her father held a long metal rod, one end buried in the burning coals of the forge, and when he withdrew it the tip glowed molten orange. He hefted his hammer and struck down in steady rhythm. The iron bent and dented, taking shape under his careful ministrations.
“We do not make swords, Eryn, because we do not need swords. That iron does not belong to us.”
She wished that she still believed that.
And so, as the sun climbed to mid-morning, Eryn found herself standing outside the inn. The bas-relief carving of a well-fed pig, its snout buried in an open barrel, swung gently on a piece of wood that was loosely hinged on a pole above the door. The creature drunk merrily, seemingly oblivious to the danger that lurked inside.
She reached into her iron place and found her iron. With a soft exhalation, she stretched out a hand and pushed the door open.
Next part: TBC
// AUTHOR’S NOTE – Back from hiatus!