“Didn’t you say there was an inn of some sort up ahead?” I asked the man riding in the wagon that I was trudging in the mud next to.
He nodded and pulled his hood forward to keep the drizzle from the oak trees out of his craggy face. The mule pulling the wagon had its head down. Its feet, like my own, were covered in sticky brown mud. My boots were probably ruined, just one more thing to add to my list of things that had gone wrong today.
When I had gotten up this morning, after spending a pleasant evening with a young lass who’d been kind enough to feed me, bed me, and make tea, I found the cottage empty and my money pouch missing. I should have known better. At least my sword, my lute, and my horse were still there.
We rode out into the morning sunshine, Gaston and I (Gaston’s my horse) and set a brisk pace out of that backwater village, whatever its name had been, toward the main road to the city.
The morning sun didn’t last long, and soon we met storm clouds at the pass. We were climbing up, and the rain was starting to come down. There were a few caravans of traders, and a few individual merchants – like the one I was walking beside – so there was no reason to expect an ambush. Gaston and I crested the ridge and headed down the other side directly into it.
Border bandits, looking for cash or goods. They were probably on their way back from smuggling unwanted expatriates into the kingdom. There was a war going on in the next kingdom. The kingdom also had a cruel ruler. I’d never met the man, but I didn’t blame the common man for fleeing into this land. Of course, the government of this land knew a fast coin when it saw it and had started charging entrance fees to those common people. Groups of smugglers sprung up almost overnight. They’d take the refugees and avoid the border guards, but charge them twice as much for the privilege. Many times, the border guards would catch the group, and the smugglers would flee. The refugees would be left to fend for themselves. Sometimes the smugglers would lead the refugees to the wilderness and dump them. The refugees would have to find their way back to civilization, if they could. Many didn’t. If the border guards found refugees, sometimes they would just herd the people back to the other country, but sometimes there’d be entertainment/abuses. I’d heard that it all depended on how bored the border guards were.
At any rate, I’d rounded a boulder and found myself surrounded by a group of crossbow-pointing men.
“Off the horse, pretty boy,” the apparent leader said.
I hesitated, calculating the chances of bolting and dodging bolts. I got off Gaston, who snorted at me in a way that made me think he thought I was a coward. I thumped him on the shoulder.
They searched me, and thanks to the lovely lass from last night, I had nothing to show for the week of playing in that smoky inn in that shit village. What the hell was its name? Oh, yeah. Dirtwater Downs.
“Nothing, Cap’n,” one of the men reported, after rifling through my saddlebags.
“What’s this?” One asked, pulling my lute out of its case.
“That’s my lute.”
“Is it worth anything?”
Well of course it is, but I said, “Only if you know how to use it.”
He snorted and put it back. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Nice sword,” another commented, circling around me, fingering his club.
“Isn’t it? A gift from an acquaintance.”
“Then you can gift it to me,” he said.
I hesitated; he smacked me. I fought back. We rolled around until the twang of a crossbow string froze us both in place. The leader looked down at us, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mustached mouth. His man got up, smearing dirt on his all ready dirty tunic. I lay where I was.
The leader gestured, and I rose and handed him my sword.
“Thanks.” He handed it to the man I’d been wrestling with. The man let out a whoop of delight. The others chuckled. Gaston took that opportunity to kick the leader in the leg.
Gaston was a war horse. He too had been a gift from that same acquaintance. No patience.
The men rushed their leader, and I tried to escape with the horse, but came up short when I felt a dagger at my ribs.
The leader got up, rubbing his leg. He grimaced at me, all amusement gone. One of the men put a blanket over Gaston’s tossing head and took him away.
“Hey, now!” My protestation got me a club across the back of the head.
I woke up a while later, looking at the feet of the mule and the wagon wheel.
The rain became heavier and the going a lot slower. Finally, we rounded a bend and left the trees behind. A small cluster of stone buildings appeared.
“We’re here,” the merchant announced.
The place looked abandoned, but we went toward it anyway. The stables were off to the right of the main building. They were dry and smelled of old moldy hay and sheep dung. The merchant stopped his wagon under an overhang, unhitched his mule, and put him in a stall. There were no other animals in the building.
“Are you sure this is it?”
He paused and sucked air in past his broken tooth, making a whistling sound. His eyes, which I hadn’t noticed before, showed a lot of white. A thrill of fear crawled up my spine, so I backed up. He advanced toward me, his meaty hands out. I retreated toward the door. He made a grab for me, and I ran out in to the storm. His laughter followed me along with the braying of the mule.
I shook my head, chagrined, and jogged to the main building. I let myself through the heavy iron-bound door at the front.
A wave of warmth hit my face, and I could hear someone playing a flute. The door opened into a wide hallway, with a stairway leading upward to the left. There was a cloak rack, a table, and a mirror. I continued down the hallway, past the stairs, toward the music.
The hallway opened up into a large room with white-washed walls and a great fireplace. Polished wooden tables and chairs were scattered around the room, and against the far wall, a long bar stretched. The barman appeared with a pair of tankards and handed them off to the serving girl. She delivered the drinks to someone around the corner. I stepped further into the room and found the flute player and a boy playing a thin flat drum that I was not familiar with sitting on a small raised stage. The flute player had a long flowing beard and mustache and his brown hair was untamed and curled wildly around his tan face. His green eyes met mine, and he gave me a slight nod. His flute appeared to be made out of glass.
“Can I get you something?”
I turned to find the serving girl standing behind me.
“Uh,” I paused. I had no money; my lute and my horse were gone. I was muddy and tired.
“Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll get you some stew and a small beer.” She gestured at a nearby table and walked off. I sat. I glanced around the room and noticed various instruments hanging on the walls. A set of bagpipes hung near a copper bugle. A small violin and bow leaned precariously on the edge of the bar. A set of castanets lay among the salt and pepper cellars on the table where I sat. I picked them up and absently joined in the song that the flute player was playing. The drumbeat changed, and I glanced at the boy. He played a quick fill and I echoed him. He grinned and laughed delightedly. The flute player stepped down from the stage and came toward me. He was dressed all in green and was wearing a strange gossamer cape that reminded me of butterfly wings. There were large round copper bells on the ends of his shoes that clanged softly when he walked.
Still playing his flute, he offered me his hand. I took it, and he led me back up to the stage and handed me a strange small stringed instrument. It was not a lute, and it had only four courses of strings. I strummed it and found it to be tuned like a violin. The flute player laughed into his instrument or made his instrument laugh, I wasn’t sure. His merry eyes twinkled at me, and I did my best to catch up to the lively tune.
The serving girl returned with my food, and gave me a smile and a wave. I was too busy picking and strumming to do more than nod my appreciation.
After the song reached its end and almost wound its way into a new tune, I paused. The flute player did also, but the boy continued to drum softly.
“Thank you,” I said.
The flute player smiled, “You’re welcome. I’m Jethro. This is Mite. That’s Molly.” He pointed at the serving girl. “And the barman is Vern.”
“Greetings all,” I said with a wave. “I’m Casper.” Vern nodded at me, while he lit a long stemmed pipe.
“Casper of Greenbriar?” Jethro asked.
“Yes,” I answered, surprised. Many people hadn’t heard of me outside of my small circuit – although I’d been hoping to get a wider audience once I reached the big city.
“I saw you play last summer at the wine festival in Cotswold.”
“Ah, yes, that was a good show.”
“You seem a bit down on your luck, if you don’t mind my saying,” Vern said from the bar.
“It’s been a long day.” I related my morning to the group, and there were mutters of retribution.
“Well, lad, don’t you worry none. Just play a bit with ole Jethro, and we’ll put you up and keep you fed. We take care of our musicians here at the Inn at the Crossroads. That we do.”
“I’m sure we can figure out how to get your items back as well. Dirty bandits!” Molly added, smacking a table with her bar towel.
Jethro nodded and started up another tune. I joined in. Things were looking up.
Looking up, indeed, as no sooner than I’d strummed my first chord that the front door blew open with a cold gust of wind and rain, and there stood a man, at least at first I thought it was a man. “You bastard!” he cried, and out from the ragged sleeves of his muddy black robe shot a bony withered hand into the direction of Jethro’s neck. Jethro didn’t get a chance to properly react. His flute detached itself from his hands, hovered in the air a moment, then drove itself through his mouth and down his throat, leaving him gasping musically for air. I was never one to let a friend, any type of friend, newfound or old, leave this world so long as I had two workable hands. I had the flute freed from his mouth before my own instrument even had a chance to hit the ground. “Now see here,” I cried to the figure, from the hood of which protruded the most unlikely nose; two gargantuan nostrils surrounded by gray wrinkled skin that sagged as if it were a shirt in need of ironing. The nostrils breathed in the air so heavily, like a tornado chopping through a dusty field, I thought I’d lose my balance. “No, you see here,” said the voice from beneath that hood, a voice so menacingly wicked, like that of a cat throwing up egg shells, that my boots seemed to tighten themselves in fright. Suddenly, the glass flute was torn from my fingers and drawn through the air toward his bony hands. The figure toyed with the flute a moment, and then the flute began to melt, dripping through the figure’s crusty black knuckles. Just before the final piece of glass oozed away, the flute remnants turned into black dust that disappeared into the shadows of the Inn similar to how rain disappears into an ocean. “Speak no more, or you’ll find yourself seeping into the cracks of this floor as well.” And speak I could not, for no matter how hard I tried to pry apart my lips, they remained closed, as if nailed shut. In fact, no one at the Inn of the Crossroads was able to utter a single word. “You were warned,” said that horrible voice. “All of you!” Then, at once, the drums, the lutes, the pipes, all the musical instruments that decorated the Inn so perfectly, evaporated into black dust. At first, the dust held the shape of each instrument and remained in the air, as if attempting to strike a final note in the same manner someone might gasp for breath as they were being strangled, but then the dust slowly dissipated and trickled to the floor. “Now,” said that voice, “isn’t that better? The sound of silence? The sound of absolute certainty that you hear only the stillness of your own existence? Yes, that’s much better.” The hooded form breathed loud and deep, as if to suck the air from our own lungs, and paced about the Inn, moving methodically from table to table. The patrons struggled with their lips, wondering if they’d speak again and fearful that they, too, would end up as this black dust that time would easily forget. In my own struggle to speak, I’d inadvertently kicked over a tankard, spilling the beverage within to the floor; it certainly made enough of a clang, but the hooded figure failed to notice. He kept moving about the Inn, floating from table to table, pausing briefly to strike even more terror into the patrons, and then moving on to the next table until he stood before Jethro. Jethro, who’d been lying prone on the floor, clutching his throat to help ease the pain of having a flute lodged down there, inched backward in horror as the hooded figure straddled over him. It was then I attacked, raising my boot as high as I could, and aimed perfectly for the hooded figure’s back; and it was then that I went right through him! I wound up head over heels near Jethro’s head, feeling a sour twist to my ankle as my foot turned in the wrong direction upon striking the floor. I wanted to cry out in pain, but was only able to grimace due to my lips being sealed so tight. The figure remained oblivious to my jaded attempt to remove him from the premises. His bony fingers slid precariously out from beneath his mud-encrusted sleeves and came into contact with Jethro’s face. For the next few moments, even the rustling of clothing fell silent as the figure absorbed Jethro’s delicate facial features through those bony appendages. Jethro’s green eyes turned into skin, his nose flattened like the lowest point in the desert, his magnificent facial hair retracted, growing shorter and shorter until it was gone altogether, and then his chin grew up over his mouth, swallowing his teeth and lips. Jethro kicked at the air and flailed his arms, and, as his tan face eventually faded into a plain of pink skin, he stopped moving altogether. The only sound throughout the Inn was the rain beating like lead bullets upon the roof. The hooded figure rose slowly from Jethro’s body and turned toward the frightened crowd, as if to decide who came next, but all he said was, “You have been warned!” before he vanished in a gust of wind through the door in the same manner as he first entered the Inn at the Crossroads. Obviously, should my lips ever perform their duties again, questions were in order.
Far across the vale, there stood a forest. In the middle of a thick grove of trees sat a small ramshackle cottage. At first glance, the cottage looked deserted, however, if one listened carefully the sound of bells and wind chimes could be heard though no bells or chimes were in sight. It was inside this cabin that Navaz sat in her rocking chair, slowly rocking to the sounds of nature’s music surrounding her. In her lap sat a black cat with glowing green eyes. At the moment, she was content with being rocked and having her fur stroked. She slowly closed her eyes and sighed with contentment. Navaz was an old woman; she had seen many winters come and go and enjoyed the peace and rebirth that each spring brought. She also loved the sounds of nature and music. Her cottage sat surrounded by trees, a brook and the ever-present sound of her bells and chimes. Many had wondered at the source of these sounds, though none had ever been able to locate them. All at once the noises around her silenced as if she had put wax into her ears. She sat up straight, and looked around. Even Zirak, the cat, sat up narrowing her eyes in displeasure of being interrupted and the feel of worry and sorrow coming from Navaz. Slowly the old woman stood up, “Come Zirak, we must go find out the source of this interruption.” With that, they left the porch and went into the cottage. The cottage was gloomy from vines and flowers that grew over the windows though the fire in the center of the room gave off enough light to see by. Over the fire hung a kettle supported by a chain hung from a tripod. The cat jumped onto a stool near the kettle and sat staring into the pot, her eyes slowly turning from green to a burnt amber, after a short time, it seemed that only her eyes remained, glowing like two small suns in the night sky. Navaz hummed quietly to herself and picked up handfuls of herbs. She started to mutter spells as she tossed the herbs into the pot. Steam began to rise and start swirling around the rafters of the cottage. The mist grew thicker and began to take on an incandescent glow. As Navaz worked, she would push back the long tattered sleeves of her black dress, occasionally stepping on the hem where it was too long, other places showed where the skirt edge had ripped or been worn away from years of wear. Her long dark hair was shot through with silver and hung about her like a veil. She picked up a stick, walked clockwise around the pot three times then gave the contents a quick stir and stood back as the mixture slowly settled, only occasionally allowing a bubble of air to surface and pop. As she watched the pot, her eyes grew large and her pale skin lightened even more giving her a gaunt like appearance. She hissed at the same time Zirak arched her back, fur standing on end as she too hissed at the pot. “So, the old evil is afoot again at the Inn. I had thought him gone from this world long ago. Too bad that is not so.” She had been able to see the final moments of Jethro as his legs had quit twitching and everyone in the room knew he had died. She saw the black-cloaked figure move around the room daring any to speak, knowing they couldn’t. He had sealed their lips. She knew the villagers would be terrified but also knew they would be able to speak once the figure left the Inn. She started moving slowly around the room, packing a few items into a carry all. “Come Zirak, we must travel to the Inn. This menace will not stop with his one act. He will return and when he does, we must be ready for him and stronger than before. Let us hope he does not expect us to come.” The fire had died down, leaving only a few glowing embers. The mist had settled down to the floor and with a final look around the room, Navaz pushed the door closed. As she and the cat started their long journey to the Inn, she waved her hand and the sound of bells and chimes were once again heard in the forest glen.
The rain still was not letting up. Lenka crouched at the base of a tree gleening what protection she could from the elements. Gods she hated being out on a night like this, but the curse drove her to get as far from people as possible when the moon was full, when she changed. She could feel that the third night of the moon was passing and that dawn was not far off now, even though the unending rain made it seem as dark as a moonless night. She sniffed the air, catching a whiff of something. Smoke. Smoke and wet hay and the smell of a wet horse, no, make that a wet donkey. And something else – the smell of manflesh. Picking up her cloths bundle in her muzzle and sniffing, she padded out from beneath the tree and followed the scent through the forest and the rain. After a time she emerged from the forest to find a large inn and stable. This was the source of the smells she had been following. Her ears perked up as she distinguished sounds coming from the stable – the snoring of an old fat man and the quiet munching of a donkey on hay.
“A feast indeed,” she thought to herself, “If I hadn’t already eaten …” She stalked into the dark stable, sniffing the air for any surprises. The donkey, catching a whiff of wet wolf fur, stopped eating and snorted in alarm, its ears coming forward and its eyes widening – it hadn’t lugged that fool’s cart all this way through the rain to become wolf chow had it?
“Quiet!” Lenka growled lowly, as she slunk in and headed to the dark corner opposite where the donkey and the still snoring old fat man were. The change was coming soon and this would be a better place to endure it than in the middle of the rain-besotted forest. The donkey froze in fear – the old fat man continued to snore.
“Ah, and now it begins” she thought as she felt the moon set and the change back to her human form begin. It is not as painful as one would think, but it is certainly not for the squeemish. With jerks and fits her bones moved and rearranged and changed and the fur on her body appeared to shrink and draw in. With a low moan it was over, for this cycle. She stood and stretched and dressed, strapping her sword on at last and wondering exactly where she had ended up at. A small sound behind her made her whirl around, drawing her sword and stopping with it at the throat of the old fat man.
“Ah… ah…” he stammered, raising his hands.
“It’s not polite to sneak up on someone in a dark stable” Lenka said, a smirk on her face, but fire and steel in her eye.
“I woke… I saw something… I… I…” the man continued stammering and backing away from her sword at his throat.
“You woke? You saw? You watched me get dressed?” With each question she poked at him with her sword and advanced on him. With each question he backed up more, his eyes wide and his hands up. She backed him up to the wall and held the sword point hard against his adam’s apple so that a small trickle of blood began to run down.
“You saw nothing” she said with a growl, “now go back to sleep.” She pulled back the sword and punched him hard in the face. The old fat man groaned and slumped to the ground unconscious.
“Nighty-night” she said sweetly, sheathing her sword and turning back towards the stable entrance. The rain was beginning to let up a little. From the inn, which had been unnaturally silent when she had arrived, low sounds could be heard. She walked over to the door and opened it. As she entered, the inn became once again still and silent. She stopped in the doorway, looking at the faces all frozen with fear. Then, with a collective sigh, the occupants of the inn stopped staring at her and began talking among themselves again, almost entirely ignoring her.
“That’s odd…” she thought as she walked slowly in and sat at a table near the fire, “I wonder what happened here to make them respond like that?”