Roger Taylor: Arash-Felloren

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Roger Taylor Arash-Felloren
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Roger Taylor


Chapter 1

The Wyndering

The door opened, creaking noisily. As the sound faded into the miasma of stale ale that pervaded the gloomy interior of the inn, it was followed by that of a glass being knocked over and hastily retrieved. The innkeeper had started violently out of his drowsing vigil at the crude wooden counter. He swore, a little too loudly, and gazed around angrily to indicate to such as might be watching that he had not been asleep but vigorously alert.

His charade evoked no response from the six customers in the drinking room. Two of them were slumped inelegantly across their tables, having succumbed either to the poor ale that was the inn’s speciality, or to the heat that had been oppressing the region for the past weeks. The other four, with varying degrees of suspicion and concern, were doing what the innkeeper was now doing – staring at the figure of a man silhouetted in the doorway, stark and still against the red sky.

For a moment, the figure seemed to the innkeeper to be emerging from a glowing fire; despite the heat in the room, he shivered. A quick and unnecessary rearrangement of several glasses and bottles disguised the reaction.

When he looked up again, the man had not moved though there was an inclination of his head which indicated that he was perhaps examining the interior of the inn before deciding to enter.

The action reassured the innkeeper. Not normally given to thinking about anything other than his own immediate needs, the sudden intrusion of his imagination into his thoughts had unsettled him far more than he would have admitted – not least to himself. Now, however, the surly normality of his life was reasserting itself. The new arrival was exhibiting one of the signs which were typical of a traveller in this area: caution.

Mercenary? the innkeeper thought. Trader? Labourer? Artisan? Miner? It was a game he played whenever a stranger arrived and he flattered himself that he could identify the calling of any newcomer at the merest glance, though he usually announced his success at this retrospectively with a knowing nod to his cronies and, ‘Saw it, as soon as he came in,’ or something similar.

Studiously turning his attention away from the door, he returned to his normal position, leaning heavily forward on the counter as though keeping his clientele under revue. It was an unremarkable posture and only his regular customers knew that his brawny arms were so arranged that his right hand would be hanging near a weighted cudgel strategically placed on two makeshift brackets behind the counter; a cudgel that he could wield with a speed and accuracy quite at odds with the lumbering pace that his overweight frame imposed on most of his actions. They knew too, that his small, peevish eyes were not in fact watching them, but maintaining a close, sidelong observation of the newcomer.

The figure stepped forward. The red evening sky behind him appeared to flare, as if suddenly released. He had scarcely taken one step when the innkeeper’s eyes came sharply forward like those of a dog avoiding the gaze of its pack leader. The hand near the cudgel softly curled and eased away from it, as if even its hidden proximity to the weapon might antagonize. The actions were instinctive and he could not have accounted for them even if he had realized what he was doing. Habit, however, overrode this response and straightened him up to receive his new customer.

Whatever ominous presence the newcomer had seemed to exude on his first appearance vanished as the door closed, and the dim light of the inn dressed him in a long, travel-stained coat and a wide-brimmed and equally stained hat. His right hand was wound around the strap of a pack hanging from his shoulder. He looked about him as he walked through the silence, then he reached up and removed his hat to reveal a lean weather-beaten face.

The innkeeper found himself looking into deep-set eyes. They were heavily shaded in the poor light and he could thus read nothing in them, though a fleeting glint from the depths unnerved him momentarily. Uncertain of his voice, he raised his eyebrows in insolent inquiry.

‘Do you have a room where I can stay?’

The ordinariness of the question aided the innkeeper’s recovery. He frowned, though it was not at the request, but at the man’s accent, which he could not place immediately. Still, that would have to wait. First things first.

‘Got any money?’ he demanded.

The man nodded slightly. ‘How much is the room?’

The innkeeper told him, increasing the normal price by a half and adding, ‘In advance.’

Unexpectedly, the man did not quibble and his left hand dropped two coins on the counter. ‘Three nights,’ he said quietly.

The innkeeper swept them up a little too eagerly, then, remembering himself, examined them carefully. They were local and they were good. ‘Three nights,’ he confirmed, stoically keeping a gleam from his eyes.

‘I’ll put my horse in the stable,’ the man said, turning away.

Fully himself again now, the innkeeper jingled the two coins significantly. The man paused, then placed a smaller coin on the counter. ‘This will feed us both.’

The innkeeper opened his mouth to remonstrate, but though the voice had been soft and unprovocative, the statement was categorical and he found himself disinclined to barter. The coins in his bulbous fist weighed heavily and he nodded in agreement. The man turned and left. As the door opened and closed, the red light washed briefly into the inn again.

‘Gave me a start when he came in, that one, Ghreel. Thought he was one of Barran’s men.’

The speaker was a rat-faced individual. He scraped his chair back and sidled up to the counter. Ghreel jingled the coins again, then grunted. He was speculating urgently about who the newcomer might be but he had no intention of exposing his confusion to the likes of ale-swilling flotsam such as Riever here.

Nevertheless, his position as supreme authority in such matters had to be maintained. He pursed his lips knowingly and tossed the coins casually into his apron pocket. ‘Not one of Barran’s,’ he said decisively. Little risk in that. Barran’s men didn’t wander about alone out here, didn’t pay for anything if they could afford it, and had no need for rooms at an inn. Further, though his entrance had been oddly disconcerting, he did not have the presence of a fighter of any kind, least of all one of Barran’s. From the hang of his coat he wore a sword, but that signified nothing.

Curiosity suddenly got the better of him – and greed. The man hadn’t haggled, so obviously he wasn’t short of money. Either that or he was simple.

‘Better see what he’s up to,’ he said, propelling himself away from the counter. The room shook under the impact of his heavy footfalls as he rolled across to the door. Riever took half a step after him, then changed his mind and returned to his table.

Outside, the setting sun, made almost blood-red by the day’s dust banging in the air, flooded the landscape and turned the inn’s untidy yard into a patchwork of unfamiliar shadows. Ghreel screwed up his eyes then grimaced as a warm and dank breeze wound itself about him like a clinging blanket. He unearthed a soiled kerchief from a deep pocket and ran it over his face as he made an undulating progress toward the open stable door.

As the various parts of Ghreel came to an unsteady standstill in the doorway, the stranger was rubbing water over the muzzle of his horse. He turned to face the panting innkeeper. Despite the heat, he had replaced his hat and Ghreel felt himself the object of an intense scrutiny even though he could not see the man’s eyes.

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