It was half past the hour of honesty.
Liquor-sweetened tongues had long ago hollered their farewells. All the good folk, he imagined, had stolen away into curtained houses, Fingers twisting against the wicks of candles, softening flames with a hiss.
And there, above him, only the waning eye of the moon as his guide.
It had been too long. Mandras had journeyed many days now. Frame wracked with fatigue, the taste of blood between his teeth, he had battled the wind, through thick mire that crusted onto his boots and bitter cold. He had let the sun dry and crack his skin; the rain stinging his wounds. He had waited, and glanced both ways for travellers on the roadside as he followed, but none came. It was as if all the good of the civilised world had dried up into the cracked earth. There was no good Samaritan with rattling cart, back from the trade of the East. No hardened hand that reached for his and pulled him up from the depths of nightmares.
And not a month ago, he remembered. The hooves of the pack horse that had clattered beside him. The Familiar voices that had sung songs of home and spun their rich tales against the knitted tapestry of the stars. They had been a company, a little knot of travelling men who never strayed too far from the path. Swords and knives linked through their belts, for they had been told to be wary, shod with sturdy boots to last the expedition.
But now they were gone. Their horses stolen, the party brutally attacked and left for dead.
Now he was the only one, and faced the curving roadside alone.
And that was how it went now.
When the ink of darkness spread itself against the sky, Mandras crept off the lonely track and slumped into restless dreams. When sunlight followed, he would stand and prepare for another aching day, staggering towards the horizon. He would lurch onwards, desperate for a taste of civilization, desperate for help, desperate to tell his tale and find a way home.
Tonight, he had not surrendered to sundown. Tonight, Mandras had to move. The memory in his feet told him they had passed a township near this place. Move. His legs quivered with the effort.
He knew what they would say, if he reached the place. What would they make of this mournful stranger? His dirty clothes were foreign, his hair filthy and matted, his eyes sunken and haunted. A man who had seen a horror and lived to tell the tale.
What he had seen. He had heard the shrieks and pleading for mercy, and yet they had spared him. Mandras, his hands on his own sword, had seen the boy in his party, face corrugated with the pockmarks of youth, mercilessly knifed by one of the gang who had overtaken them. Hands had caught in the reins of the horse, and the boy had sunk to his knees.
And somewhere, slipping through the cracks of his reverie, against the furious gale, Mandras heard it.
The faint trill of an accordion, that rose and tangled with the dirty wind. It unfolded along the path ahead.
Crippled with exhaustion, Mandras shuddered and sped up. One shaky foot in front of the other. Some vestige of adrenaline, first a trickle of warm honey, then a hot flood, rushed to his very veins. He could glimpse something ahead between the flecks of rain that suddenly hastened from the heavens. Was it safety? What shape would it take?
The sky cracked open again, and it felt as if the Gods were roaring him on. The lightning carved for him his path, and outlined a well-worn building. Not twenty paces ahead. He pushed on, blinking the mud and tears from his eyes, finally falling to his knees before it, staring up.
The place was aged and wooden, and the boarded up windows looked like kindly eyes regarding him. There were dull splashes of varnish across the shabby door, which looked like it had been pulled off its hinges more than once before.
The music was coming from within.
Mandras raised a bloodied fist and pounded upon the splintery wood.
His voice had decayed into a hoarse whisper. He raised his eyes and saw a battered swinging sign.
The North Castle Inn.
There was a clatter and a muttering from inside, and Mandras stood back. A shutter was wrenched open, and a pair of inquisitive eyes peered through.
‘What are you after?’
almost collapsed with relief.
‘Please….I have been… travelling…’
‘And my party….was attacked…’ Mandras forced the words through his sandpapered throat. ‘I’d only ask for shelter for the night…nothing more, sir.’
The eyes appraised him for a moment.
‘You can’t come in here without wanting more than shelter. But we’re all right. We’ll see to your needs and set you on your feet.’
And with that, the door creaked forward with approval, and a hand snaked out and seized Mandras’s torn sleeves, pulling him inside.
It was an inn. His weary eyes may well have told him that. But laughter and music curled into the very corners of the room. The candles even seemed to flicker with amusement. There was a long bar that stretched lazily around the centre of the room, selling all manner of liquor in foggy, dusted bottles. Around the edges, odd collections people gathered in low chairs, whispering furiously to each other. Mandras had expected some piqued interest at the appearance of a stranger, but not an eyebrow had been raised. He was hardly alone. Many were strangely dressed. There was a minority dressed in a fashion he recognised; several ladies with rich dresses and dainty haindkerchiefs, and gentlemen in their neat suits. But others seemed to have made their own way, clothed in roughly made pantaloons and brightly coloured shirts. One young man even appeared to be dressed as a vampire. Huddles of figures gathered round, ensconced in conversations trimmed with chuckles and loud voices. Some danced unevenly near a young man, who played a fast and erratic guitar.
Mandras finally blinked away from these extraordinary scenes, and glanced at the person whose hand had pulled him inside.
He was a handsome young man with a crooked smile, his long flaxen hair caught back in a rough ponytail. His clothes were scruffy, with waistcoat and hands smudged with grease, shirt long and untucked. A pair of spectacles balanced precariously on the end of his nose.
‘M’name’s Leon,’ said he, answering Mandras’s gaze rather than his words. ‘I’m…well, I’m in charge of the gate, and…well, fairly seeing that everything’s in order. But you, sir, look desperately in need of a drink. Come on, we’ll find the Lady.’
Mandras stared around, wondering how his party had passed this place unknowingly in their travels. His own curiosity had clawed forward ahead of the fatiguing tale.
‘Thankyou, that would be most kind.’
A smile spread across the man Leon’s face, and he seized Mandras’s elbow, dragging him forward to a stool.
‘Who’s this, then?’ A petulant voice demanded. ‘You know I don’t like you running away when we’re in the middle of a dance!’
Mandras, slumping in his seat, turned his head to look. A young woman had suddenly approached, frowning at him and Leon.
‘You know I’m in charge of the gate, darling. Business called.’
‘You could be in charge of the gate of Hell for all I care! Don’t run away in the middle of a dance! You wait until the end of the song!’ Her accusing eyes suddenly turned to Mandras, as the erratic guitar sped to a flourishing finish. ‘Who is this? He better not be a spammer.’
‘Does he look like a spammer?’ Leon rolled his eyes with impatience.
‘No,’ hollered a voice from the other side of the room, ‘but he looks like a Russian.’
A high roar of laughter rose to meet this strange comment. The dark-haired girl chuckled too. The knot of wild dancers, finished in their exertions, were now crossing over to the bar to drink.
‘Pia, let’s not argue. Have you seen the Lady? Lady, where are you?!’
He pounded a fist into the wooden bench.
‘That ain’t no way to speak to the Lady of the Castle…’ noticed a tall dark man in the corner, who was hunched over a piece of parchment, furiously writing. ‘That ain’t no way to speak to the Lady at all..’
‘I haven’t seen her all night,’ Pia shrugged, fidgeting with her skirts. ‘But this fellow looks like he could do with a few drinks. Or a potato.’
‘Just make him a sarnie,’ noted a girl with long ginger hair. ‘Sarnies fix all, damnit.’
Mandras was beginning to wonder whether he stumbled off the road and fallen asleep, and was simply dreaming of such a wild place, where the strange patrons spoke so improperly and the room was so warm. He quietly pinched himself.
‘The Lady’s out, Leon. I’ll be happy to help.’
Emerging from beyond the bar there came a girl with smiling eyes and brown hair, her arms full of clean plates. She tucked them away with a clatter and cleaned her hands on a dirty dishcloth.
‘Ahh, my favourite Penguin.’ Leon greeted her. ‘This chap here needs our help. Name your poison…ah, sorry, I don’t remember your name..’
‘I didn’t disclose it,’ Mandras murmured. ‘My name is Mandras.’
‘What a cool name,’ commented a girl who looked the youngest there. ‘It’s one of those names which doesn’t need a last name. It’s all dark and mysterious.’
‘But he is dark and mysterious! Look at him!’ The ginger haired girl pointed out.
‘Leave him alone, he’s not an exhibition in a zoo,’ the girl called the Penguin sighed. ‘Look, Mandras…I’m sorry. Everyone here has a little bit of interest in newcomers, we always hope they’re sort of…well…. quirky. Like us. Everyone here is a little bit so. What would you like to drink?’
‘Water, thank you.’ Mandras murmured. There was certainly a welcome feel to the place. There was no distrust in their gazes, any whisperings or accusations. The warm blur of conversations could almost send him into a restful sleep, away from anything he might have endured.
Penguin slid the glass of water across to him.
‘Do you need shelter for the night?’ She asked. ‘My sister, that’s the Lady, the proprietor, she’ll always lend a spare room to anyone who’s lost.’
‘It is all that I would ask. It would be most kind of you,’ Mandras replied, and raised the glass to his lips. The cool water soothed his harsh, splintery throat.
‘Easily done.’ Penguin’s eyes glimmered. ‘As long as you tell us your story.’
He put the glass down and looked at her. ‘Tell my story?’
‘Everyone has a story to tell,’ a smiled played round her lips. ‘Look at everyone in here. Rha over there, she sometimes eats Mars Bars for breakfast, and gets offended by sheep. Felks, the little one beside Rha, she can tell you the names of every single domestic ferret breed ever. Lysia can shoot eleven targets in nine seconds whilst blindfolded. Raul in the corner can say I love you in thirty seven languages, including Ewokian, Elvish and Klingon, which, arguably, aren’t real languages. Pia, she makes up words and lobbies to get them added to the dictionary for a living, and Leon, well, he writes the dictionary for a living, and knows almost every word in it, including meretricious. And the rest of us have all our own flight and fancies. And we love to hear stories.’
Mandras stared at her. They could not have heard a story such as his before. Treachery and murder, and then the attack, the lost gold and stolen horses. They wouldn’t sleep in their beds once he had laid the facts before them. He bit his lip savagely.
‘If you tell it, we’ll never bother you again.’ Penguin murmured. ‘We’ll let you rest a while and then leave. But you look as if you might have some points of interest. So share them.’
‘It’s not a very savoury story,’ he replied slowly. ‘Your friends would not care to hear it.’
‘We’d care to hear anything,’ Leon had reappeared. ‘Just try us.’
Mandras looked around to see a sea of faces alight with interest. They were watching him, and it looked as if they were willing to believe him.
‘I will,’ he murmured, and the audience clustered around, with bated breath, waiting for the words.
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