Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series) (2 page)

BOOK: Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series)
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The man in question lifted up his head, groggily, and fixed the landlord with a narrow, impatient gaze. ‘I’m not your friend, I’m your customer, barkeep, and I say I want more wine,’ he slurred.

The landlord sighed and reached for the half-empty bottle of purple wine that sat waiting behind him. He sauntered over to the foreigner slumped over the edge of his bar. He looked like a man clinging to the edge of a precipice, trying to decide whether he should just let go. The landlord held the bottle with both hands and topped up the stranger’s glass. When he pulled away, the man irritably tapped the bar-top with the butt of his finger. The landlord sighed and filled the glass to the very brim, so that the purple liquid teetered at the lip of the glass.

‘You can leave the bottle,’ grunted the stranger, as the landlord reached for the coin.

‘And you’ll be lucky, for a silver,’ replied the landlord, quietly. The others in the tavern, maybe four men at most, all sitting alone and separate, watched from the corners of their curious, wary eyes. Locals all. Strangers were common in that dusty corner of Jorpsund, where the Fool Roads led east, but not usually tolerated for long. This man had been in town for a day, and already his welcome was wearing thin. A few of them eyed the box sat at the stranger’s feet, the box wrapped in thick grey cloth that occasionally rattled, as if all by itself.

The man sighed, rubbing tired eyes with his grime-thick fingers, almost black with dirt and char. He had the look of a man perhaps too young for his skin, as if his body had seen a few decades more than his dull eyes. What skin was not covered in clothing was weathered and tough, almost leather in itself, and there were more than a few scars to be counted. Most of his head and face was covered by a wide-brimmed cloth hat, dyed black to match his cloak. In terms of build, he was a stocky man, with a beer belly larger than his belt would have preferred. A foreigner by the paleness of his skin. Arka skin. Maybe Albion at a push. His winter clothes seemed too small for his ample build; his wool shirt and tunic were stretched to the point of unravelling, and his cloak barely cleared his shoulders. There were leather bracers around his forearms. The tavern owner sniffed. He had encountered enough mages in his life to recognise one sitting at his bar. He also knew well enough not to trifle with them. He waited patiently while the mage rubbed his tired eyes, careful to keep the wine well out of arm’s reach.

His eyes suitably chafed, the mage reached into the inside pocket of his cloak and dug out a battered coin-purse. After a musical rummaging, he produced a shiny gold coin and flicked it at the landlord, smiling. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Now leave the bottle.’

The landlord didn’t argue. He held the coin to his lips and pinched it between two yellow teeth. It was real. ‘Right you are,’ he said, and set the half-empty bottle and the silver down with a thud.

There was a creak and a bang and a sudden gust of crisp, cold evening air as the door to the tavern opened and shut again. The mage didn’t bother turning around; he had no enemies in those parts that he was aware of. Nobody else would be stupid enough to try him, even as dog-drunk as he was. He just sipped his poison, and watched out of the corner of his wine-glazed eyes as a woman and her child approached the bar.

The landlord greeted them with a smile that was missing one tooth. He bowed slightly, stiffly. ‘Ladies,’ he said. ‘The finest of evenings to you.’

‘And to you, sir,’ whispered the woman, lips numb with cold, her accent a hint of southern. At the sound of it the mage turned his head ever so slightly.

The woman tossed back her hood and ran a hand through a tangled fringe of jet-black hair. The landlord couldn’t help but smile at her. She was stunning, though not in the traditional sense. Striking would have described her better. Her features were sharp, angular even; every bone, feature, and measurement seemed to be accentuated in an odd, yet strangely attractive way, as though she had been sculpted rather too vigourously. Even her obsidian hair was extreme; had it not been apprehended and clasped in a tight knot behind her head, it would have reached to her hips. She was a foreigner as well, by the looks of her pale skin. Her cheekbones and the cheeks that hid beneath them had been pinched red by the cold evening air, and her smoky blue eyes twitched back and forth between the landlord, his wines, and the man sitting to her right, slumped over the bar.

The landlord leant forward and peered over the edge of the bar at the child by the woman’s side. They were quite obviously mother and daughter. She too had long black hair, and had huge, unblinking eyes like blue-green marbles. She couldn’t have been older than eight, nine maybe.

‘I am sorry,’ began the landlord, smile fading, ‘but there’s no children allowed in here. ‘specially not little girls like that ‘un.’

The woman frowned and pulled the little girl tight to her side with her left arm. She held the other close to her side. She looked worried. ‘Oh, she won’t be any trouble.’

‘Sorry, miss. Rules is rules.’

The woman bit her lip, concerned. She looked around at the others in the inn, the handful of men reclining in corners, mumbling to themselves and sipping ale, pretending not to watch and listen.

‘Well, who makes the rules here?’ asked the woman.

The landlord flicked his cloth over his shoulder and stood a little straighter. Another smile sneaked onto his face. ‘That would be me.’

At this news, the woman smiled right back, flashing two rows of very white teeth. ‘And what is your name, sir?’

‘My name?’ blinked the landlord. Strangers didn’t usually ask his name. ‘It’s Darnums, lady, and, er, what might yours be?’

The woman leant forward a fraction, almost imperceptibly, and put her hand on the bar. ‘You see, Darnums, sir, we’ve been travelling along the road all day. We had intended to travel on all night you see, but we heard rumours of bandits in the woods to the north, and so we’ve had to stop here in your most lovely town. The man at the stables didn’t have enough space for our bears and so we’ve had to tie them up outside, and as we’ve just found out that the inn across the road has no rooms left, we thought we might come in here, save ourselves from the wind and the cold for an hour at least, before we go back to camping with our bears in the street.’ Here the woman paused to wipe a strand of hair from her eye, sniffing. ‘We were just hoping to get a mug of warm brandy or ale you see, just to rid the cold from our bones for a short while,’ said the woman, shivering. ‘But I understand, Darnums, sir. Rules are indeed rules. I’m sorry to have bothered you. Come, Samara, let’s leave. Back to the bears.’ The woman took the child by her hand and pulled her gently towards the door. The child looked up at her mother and then back at Darnums, and her eyes glistened in the torchlight. The mage was smirking surreptitiously around the rim of his wine glass. He almost wanted to clap, the performance was so good.

Darnums winced as they opened the door. The influx of air was cold and sharp like little knives. He could feel it even at that distance. The woman and her child hovered at the door, tucking their sleeves into their gloves and pulling their hoods up. Just before they closed it behind them, Darnums shook his head and rapped his knuckles on the bar. ‘Wait!’ he called. The woman turned, door half-closed, cold air rushing in. ‘Yes?’ she asked, in a small voice.

Darnums beckoned them in. ‘Come back! And close the door!’

The woman hurried back indoors, the subtlest of satisfied smirks hiding at the corner of her wind-bitten lips. She ushered her child back towards the bar, both shivering violently. ‘Yes?’ she asked, hope glinting masterfully in her eyes.

Darnums smiled. ‘You can stay here a while, if you’d like. I’d be a lesser man if I sent two ladies like you out into the dark and the cold.’

‘What with those bandits about,’ muttered one of the locals, from his grimy corner. The others grunted and sipped their ales in agreement.

The woman beamed. ‘Thank you sir! Thank you. You’re too kind.’

Darnums held up his hands. ‘It’s the least I can do. Please, have a seat by the fire,’ he said, pointing to his “fire,” which in all honesty was more of a cast-iron soup pot tipped on its side and welded to a makeshift chimney that wandered up the wall and into the ceiling like an escaping snake. A handful of embers glowed in its sooty bowels.

‘I’m afraid I can’t offer any warm ale, but I can offer some brandy for you, and some milk for the little one, if you’d like?’

The woman smiled again and curtseyed as she moved towards the fireplace. ‘That would be most kind.’

‘It’s not a trouble,’ replied Darnums, watching as the woman led her daughter to a pair of threadbare stools by the so-called fire. They rubbed their gloved hands in front of the glowing embers, smiling at each other. Darnums fetched two chipped porcelain mugs from a cupboard, put them on the bar, and then took his second-best brandy from the shelf on the wall. While he poured with one hand, he smoothed out the creases in his apron with his other.

‘Don’t get many women in here then, I take it, barkeep?’ mumbled the mage, the lip of his glass still firmly glued to his smiling lips.

‘What?’ Darnums flinched, realising he had been caught staring.

The mage chuckled hoarsely. ‘I said…’

Darnums shook his head, popping the cork back into the brandy bottle with a little squeak. ‘I heard what you said, friend, and no, we don’t,’ he replied.

‘Figures.’

Darnums set the brandy back on the shelf and rummaged in a cold chest for some milk. He found an open bottle, sniffed it, and then topped up the brandies with a few glugs of milk.

‘No warm milk?’ chuckled the mage. Darnums paused, a hand wrapped around each mug. He flicked the mage a sour glare, but then he paused, and while he glared, Darnums absently pondered whether the mage was one of the fire and flame sort, and whether he should ask, or whether it would be rude. He opened his mouth, but before he could speak, there came a rattling sound from the other side of the bar, at the mage’s feet. The mage kicked at something with the toe of his boot and the rattling stopped immediately. He grunted, satisfied.

‘Wouldn’t keep them waiting. Their drinks might get even colder,’ the mage snidely advised, smiling at his own joke. Darnums shook his head. Holding the two mugs tightly in each hand, as if the short walk and a tight grip might warm them just a little, he made his way over to the quiet females leaning close to the fire-pot, smiling his very best of smiles. The mother turned at the sound of his footsteps. She saw the drinks in his hand and put a palm to her chest. ‘Oh, bless you, sir, we are in your debt.’ She reached inside her fur coat with one hand. ‘How much do we owe you?’

Under the pitiful wash of the woman’s gaze, Darnums bent down to place the mugs on an empty little table and smiled even wider. ‘I think, on this one occasion, I can allow some charity. They’re on the house.’

The woman’s pronounced features melted into such a picture of gratitude that, for a moment, Darnums thought she might shed a tear. She put her hand to her chest again and simply mouthed her thanks. Darnums stood up and nodded courteously, trying not to swell with pride. He strode back to the bar, picked up his cloth and a dirty glass, making it squeak loudly. The mage rolled his eyes at the man. ‘Watch my wine,’ he muttered, putting his hands on the bar.

Darnums was about to inquire why he would need to do such a thing when the mage grunted and pushed himself off his stool. He rubbed his eyes a little more, cleared his throat, and then walked, a little unsteadily, toward the mother and child. Darnums stopped polishing and watched with concerned eyes.

Much to the landlord’s horror, and the surprise of both females, the mage didn’t even bother to introduce himself. He simply sat down on the nearest stool and stamped his boots on the floor. The woman and her child looked at their new companion with a mixture of worry and intrigue. There were purple smears of wine on his lips and chin, and he had dirty, grubby hands. He tipped back a wide, cloth hat and leant forward, grinning, taking in the woman’s striking features and long, dark hair. She seemed to favour her right arm. The left lay on her lap as if she had recently injured it. Its fingers were of a hue so pale they bordered on white. ‘If you’d like?’ he offered to the mother, holding out a grimy hand.

The woman couldn’t help but recoil. She held her mug close to her chest and stared down at the proffered hand. ‘Like to what?’ she asked, in a whisper.

‘The drink, lady, give it me.’

The woman looked to Darnums, who was hovering at the edge of his bar, to the man, and then to the hand. She spied a key-shaped tattoo on his wrist, hiding under a dirty bracer. It was black like the wing of a crow. A mage then. Not just any ordinary one at that. ‘Alright,’ she replied, and held out her mug of brandy. The mage smiled and gestured to the little girl perched on the edge of the other stool, eyes wide and more than a little scared.

‘And yours, little madam?’ he asked. The mother nodded and the little girl gave up her mug too. ‘No use stopping for a drink on an evening like this if it don’t warm your innards, eh? Cold brandy and cold milk can only do so much,’ he said. He tapped the two mugs together with a clink, and then pressed them together, one in each hand. ‘Do you like magick, little girl?’ he asked, and the little girl nodded eagerly, a tiny white tooth biting her bottom lip, still pale from the cold, in earnest. ‘You do? Well, you’ll like this then,’ he replied, winking at both of them.

It began slowly at first. The mage fixed the mugs with an intense stare. For a moment, nothing, and then, very gradually, his palms started to glow with a warm, ruby light. Then the air around his hands began to waver and shimmer. Before the mother and her child could lean closer, little flames sprang up from his fingers and began to lick at the bases of the two porcelain mugs. Tendrils of steam rose from their contents to sketch patterns in the air. The little girl clapped her hands with delight, drawing stares from the others in the tavern. With a grunt from the mage, the flames in his hands died away, and he leant forward so that the woman could take back her drinks. ‘Take them by the handles, m’lady,’ advised the mage, and she did, passing one to her daughter and then taking hers. The two of them were soon enjoying the feel of the warm steam on their cold faces, sipping tentatively at the hot liquid.

BOOK: Dead Stars - Part One (The Emaneska Series)
2.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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