Blackness pushed at the edges of his sight. That old, familiar tunnel tried to pull him in, but he’d always been able to pull back. Fighting the rising panic, he tightly gripped the rough table edge. It felt like his heart would explode, like he was in immediate danger from anything around him. Memories of his fallen companions flashed before his eyes. He was in those moments. He could smell the blood and hear the screams. The feeling of helplessly, magnified by a hundred times, ripped away at his control and resolve. He alone survived those wars. The agony of guilt was too much. Almost. He would survive and knew that lasting relief wouldn’t come.
“Sa’, are ye finished?” a voice intruded.
The tunnel faded and he came back to the present. His pounding heart calmed and allowed him to recall his present situation. Looking around, familiarity returned. He could see his rucksack on the floor. Scabbards, blades, and belts were piled on top. His bastard sword was propped in a corner, its leather-wrapped handle stained and dark. He looked at his white-knuckled hand, trying its best to crush the edge of the table. Next to it sat a greasy pewter tumbler, half-filled with some vile, local whiskey. He turned toward voice and took in the full glory of the tavern keep. He couldn’t decide if the man was uglier than the whiskey.
“Aye. Take it, old man. I don’t need a belly full of poison today.”
The tavern keep offered a vivid retort and noisily cleared the table.
This man, whose mother called him Orloff, decided he needed to be away from this vile tavern. He buckled down his pauldrons and rigged himself for travel. Belts and blades were lashed back into place and his ruck thrown over a shoulder. Orloff tossed a few coins on the table, making note of the anchor relief on one. It reminded him of his voyage here. Had the ship been on fire, it would have perfectly matched his ancestors’ funerary practices.
“Anchors away, my friends.”
He stepped out into the light. It was a beautiful day if you only looked skyward. Squinting against the brightness, he brought his eyes back to reality. This port town, called Timmons-by-the-Sea, was a cesspool. Human waste caked the corners of almost everything. Dead animals rotted in the gutters. The people that lived here were almost elemental expressions of that darkness. He could see the rot inside them. It wasn’t unusual these days and that hurt him deeply.
Earlier that morning, as his transport had docked, Orloff had noted a temple banner flying some distance away. He had the vaguest recollection that the symbol on its red cloth represented a god called Tuli. If that was accurate, he might be able to find some peace and a decent meal inside those walls. Tuli was the Giver-God, after all. He wasn’t eager to navigate through this labyrinthine village, but he desperately wanted it behind him.
He stretched his arms above him, squeezed his shoulder together, and felt some of the tension fade in tune with the clanking of his armor. The metal cap on the end of his bastard sword’s scabbard permitted it to be used as a walking stick. Its metallic rap-tap was distinct against the other noises around him. Orloff knew it drew attention to him, but it also served as a warning to the idiot-brutes that inhabited such places. His appearance, which was not an affectation, said, “Seasoned warrior.” It was an almost universal message to bullies and thugs. Of course, some were more stupid than others.
After a short time, he found himself passing through the town’s grubby market district. It reeked of spoiled fish and he could see piles of the carelessly discarded innards. No one looked remotely clean and they exuded the most fowl odor. The wares on display were cheap and sometimes broken. Glass baubles to create a feeling of wealth. A bottle of the same rotgut he passed on earlier. Packages of desperation. It was all here.
Timmons-by-the-Sea was dead inside.
Upon making that internal judgement, he saw what he was looking for. The western road stretched away from the village. Just beyond the horizon, he could see Tuli’s flag beckoning him on. Exhausted, he wondered if this was the religion that coveted olives. He’d know soon enough.
Orloff estimated the march would take approximately twenty minutes. He was making good time over the rolling hills and natural features. Midway, he saw a horse-drawn cart at the roadside. A man in a bright white robe was tending to one of the horse’s hooves. “She’s picked up a stone,” Orloff considered as he passed. The robed man glanced his way and offered a grunt.
Without further incident, Orloff found himself at the entry-arch for the temple. Indeed, the old stone building was surrounded by a grove of olive trees. It didn’t stink here and it was well-tended. He breathed a sigh of relief. This was indeed a temple of Tuli and he understood the most basic tenets of her followers. They were lovers of peace. Inside, behind the donation box, there would be a table of dry foods and non-perishables. It was expected that a traveler could benefit from these goods upon making a donation. Making his way inside, Orloff dropped a few of his remaining coins in the box. They hit the bottom and noisily echoed for a moment. His offering sounded like the only one they had received that day.
Looking around, he wondered if he was alone. He thought he heard a muffled word from somewhere nearby, but it didn’t matter. He had adhered to the custom and had no reason to expect resistance. Gathering up a fair-share of goods, he made his way back outside. The shade of the olive trees called to him and he found a suitable resting place. Some tack and dried meat calmed his belly and he was profoundly grateful for clean water. Feeling better, he dozed in the warm shade.
Orloff had seen many conflicts in his time. He had earned his scars and the good reputation he had with his fellows. Competent warriors, especially those that offer lone mercenary services, develop a keen sense for the unusual and the dangerous. Being perceptive was a trait of the survivor. As a result, like the rest of his ilk, Orloff slept lightly. Only the deepest exhaustion could grant him a sound sleep, brief though it may be. He dreamed of horrible things.
The crunch of rolling wheels demanding he open his eyes. The cart he’d seen earlier creaked to a stop outside the temple gate. Old White Robes dismounted and began the process of unhitching his horse. It was all perfectly normal and Orloff dozed again. The dreams were less horrible, but had a recurring theme. A bright white sheet hung on a clothesline. It whipped in the wind and the smell of fresh laundry filled his dream senses. “It’s so clean and beautiful…,” he thought.
The cart driver was clean.
He snapped awake, cursing himself for not making note of that detail before. Something was wrong. He could taste it. Preparing for the unknown, he felt the his heartbeat accelerate, and quietly rose from his resting place. He slipped the loops that held his short blades in place, slung the bastard sword over his back, and crept toward the entrance of the temple. Scanning his surroundings, he could see White Robes’ horse loosely lashed near the gate. The cart was there, too, but out of the way. Other than the horse’s quiet complaining, there was silence. Just as he turned his eyes back to the entrance, a white blur flashed through his line of sight. Red. There was also red.
White Robes darted toward his horse. His brilliant clothing soaked with shining blood. Orloff calculated whether he could cross the distance in time, but knew it was unlikely. Concealing himself, he watched as this killer cooly mounted his horse and raced westward. He moved like a killer. This wasn’t a random thing.
Once the rider was out of sight, Orloff sneaked to the temple wall, and made his way toward the front door. Peeking around the corner, he could see a discarded dagger near the steps. He approached it and noted its distinct curve. He turned to look inside the door and saw a woman, clad in Tuli priest garb, laying in a soup of entrails and blood. He paused and surveyed the scene. The donation box was still locked and seemed untouched. Behind it, the table looked as if it has been restocked.
Orloff decided he needed to be away from this place. Just as he turned toward his temporary camp, a cry shattered the air.
Snapping his head toward the scream, he could see a lone man standing on the road toward Timmons-by-the-Sea. It was the old tavern keep. He was armed with an old rusted short sword.
At that moment, he heard hounds barking in the distant and their masters yelling wild instructions. This was a mob. Quickly assessing his options, he glanced back to his camp. His ruck. He couldn’t leave that ruck. “Gods, I’ve been set up,” was at the front of his mind. Turning back toward the screaming tavern keep, he could tell the hounds were near. He had no choice now.
He bolted and ran toward the back of the temple. Orloff didn’t have a god, but he prayed to them all that the murdered priest had a stable. Luck was with him. As the cacophony of the mob and hounds grew louder, he yanked open the stable door, led the startled horse out, and mounted bareback. Orloff was a capable rider and he spurred the frightened beast on at a breakneck pace. Crashing through the olive branches and over a small fence, he was soon clear to make haste.
Looking back, he saw a strange thing. Just outside his point of escape, he could see at least ten hounds. Some were grey and some were black, but all of them were sitting perfectly still and looking his way. Behind the dogs, the old tavern keep stood with his mob. His murderous stare pierced like a arrow.
The white-robed murderer had gone west. Orloff was headed north, but had little understanding of this area’s geography. Needing to make distance, he put those thoughts out of his mind. He needed to get to safety and do it fast. He rode on and returned to a previous thought. Yes, he needed his maps, but he’d left his ruck behind. More importantly, that mob would soon find it and its contents.
“Gods… they have the package,” he whispered to the stolen horse as the distant mountaintops rose before him.
© CGT, 2017.
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Obol is a poet and an infrequent writer of prose.