Ten Minutes In A Tavern by Harald Hagen “I looked him in the eyes,” Joden starts again, staring into the murk of his drink, “right into the blacks of his eyes. Felt my breath, wet and stinking of ale, push back from his face onto mine. The sting. Unbearable. But not once did I look away. Not at the white silk surcoat across his chest, probably worth more money than what’s ever slipped through these hands. Not at the hellsaint’s pendant around his neck, given him by somesuch-god or another before he became its incarnate. Not at the scar on his chin that he got when he was three.” Joden sits at the counter of a tavern where shadows fill more seats than patrons. The barkeep nods along as he listens to the man. Around them, torches flicker and spit. High on the back wall a sign reads ‘Bleakmare,’ while beneath it a bullglaive hangs visible from every seat in the house. Hagen 1
“For the longest time, I couldn’t move,” Joden says. “Caught in some back alley between 'proud' and 'nauseous.' Strange to get so close to something you’ve hunted from afar for years. When I finally regained my nerve, I finished the deed. Reached down, took hold of the dagger in his gut, and pulled. And everything that he ever was started spilling out of him.” Joden downs his greenkrill ale. It’s a cold fire in his throat with the taste of burnt grass. The barkeep, Vay An, stands with skin and eyes of ember, two heads taller than any man. To the sides his server boys wait and whisper in a native tongue, each of them a different shade of orange. White fur frames their wrinkled ears. “The Sect King, slain.” Vay An says to Joden in his strange way. Joden pushes his mug. “Another.” Vay An pours and drops in a dark, finger-like crystal. It hits the surface and hisses. “For all the good it’s done me.” Summer air bakes the smell of sweat into the wooden walls and dirt floors. With the day’s heat outside obstinate in its excess, a small band of travelers finds their refuge in the tavern. All patrons but Joden oblige them with hushed sounds, ceased movements, and looks of casual suspicion. But nothing about them is remarkable. The moment ends. Vay An signals a boy with auburn skin to see to the band. “And after the blood drained?” “It wasn’t blood,” Joden says. “It was cold what came out of him. Icy as a bite of winter, and clear as a stream. Nearly froze my toes when it rushed over my boots. Went right through the damn things.” Joden looks down at his feet and sees the iron
there as always, rinsed by decades, aging with the rest of his armor at a different pace than he. “I let it all come.” The travelers seat themselves at the center table. They stir in their chairs. The auburn boy recites a short menu to them like half of a child’s rhyme. “Keeps me up at night,” Joden says, “remembering what it smelled like.” Vay An leans in further, keeping one eye on the room. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” Three make up the band at the table, all with ripe voices and unspent youth. They sit as if in judgment over the auburn boy on thrones of uneven pegs. They cough and spit. Vay An lets a moment pass before asking: “The dagger — did you keep it?” A laugh escapes Joden. “I won’t sell it to you, friend.” “For a lifetime of my people's ale? You’d save yourself a fortune.” “I’d drink faster than you can brew.” “I can always find spare hatchlings.” “Be that as it may. I might need a debt like that from someone else.” Vay An clicks the two tongues in his mouth. “A pity.” The travelers ask about ox head soup, about whether the eyes are left in when the head is boiled or if they’re scooped out with fingernails. As they speak, they give each other looks. “You’re a hero, Ser,” someone tells Joden. He looks over. A pale-skinned priest sits two seats down, seeming younger than his eyes betray. A simple black habit lined with red wraps his thin body, while a crested shawl loose around his neck hides only most of a pendant.
“Mercy,” the priest continues, moving closer, “but I couldn’t help but overhear. I had to say something. Your tale moved me, Ser, in a way that defies description. You’ve served the land beyond duty’s call and saved us from the Sect King’s threat to our lives and the liberties of will. The world owes you gratitude unpayable, yet it only thanks you by forgetting. This, I had to say to you, Ser: a champion fights for glory, but a hero demands none. You are a true hero.” “And?” He pauses. “May I buy the next round for you, Ser?” “I’ll take another green if you keep your ‘Sers.’ ” The priest smiles. “If it suits you. My name is Pyeter.” The band’s swordsman sires the auburn boy ‘Littlechick,’ and the enchanter and rogue spit the nickname again and again as they move on to fatrabbit skewers. Are they first skinned alive, they ask, to stretch and make supple the meat? The boy answers them, completely still. Vay An appears distracted by something in the air. “This priest has a proposition.” Pyeter pauses again. “I don't see how you could know that.” “Our ears hear voices, holy man. All manner of them.” Pyeter studies him. Above his great height, he sees a sign underlined by a weapon. At the table, the rogue recounts an old legend to Littlechick about a weredragon with scales of midnight, flowing hair of clouds, and twelve eyes of blood. Its talons, she says, are called Mercy for they’re too dull to tear, only bludgeon; its teeth are called Love because there’s nothing they cannot crush and grind to dust; and Peace is its breath of searing white fire, ungiven to those still living. She cites a prophecy: if one eats a thousand Hagen 4
souls, it will lay a hundred eggs, and the land’s new lords will be crowned with the screams and bones of their subjects. Joden slams his mug. “Is that why you sugared your tongue for me?” “I do not waste my words, Joden,” says Pyeter. “I meant them all.” “Did you.” “On my life.” Joden turns to the priest. “Oh how glad I am to hear it,” he says, burying his gaze into him, “so very glad. A wise young giver who values old swords because they can still cut, not because they’re cheap. Not because their only edge over a new blade is the bargain. Not ‘brittle’ but proven. Not ‘bent’ if still pointed. ‘Heavy’ only deepens the cut. And what’s a little rust if you can still make things bleed?” Pyeter straightens his shawl. To end the weredragon’s tale, the enchanter describes the arrival of three brave and powerful adventurers who stand up to the menace and, during a sun’s eclipse when the beast’s strength is no longer impossible but merely unimaginable, slay it in the name of the people. The swordsman states it outright for all to hear: Littlechick now looks at those very heroes. For their valor, he continues, they have earned the right to a feast in commemoration of their deeds. “Spare the romance,” Joden says. “There’s a reason you’ve come to a seeker’s tavern in the shadiest reaches of town, and it’s not for fine company. Out with the job and be done.” “If it suits you,” Pyeter says. “The ruins south of here. My Order has deduced that a seal on one of its underchambers will expire soon. I will investigate; you will guard.”
“And how might they have ‘deduced’ that? It’s a centuriesold necropolis.” “You’ve heard something of my Order, have you, Joden?” “I’ve barely heard you.” “Then you do not know what we can do,” Pyeter says, then takes a small, indignant sip. The auburn boy smiles. He loudly asks the three travelers if, during battle, the legendary fertile half-lizard had appreciated the wit of his anatomy. The air turns. The travelers draw. Pyeter moves to intervene. But before he can unsheathe the knife at his side, Joden stops him and whispers: “This is not our house.” Vay An takes the bullglaive from the wall and leaps over them both. The rogue turns the auburn boy around, her knife at his throat to deter the barkeep. She sees nothing. Behind her, the enchanter falls to the ground in halves before anything is cast and the swordsman finds the bullglaive lodged into the bones of his raised forearms. Vay An pushes in deeper. The rogue lifts her knife and calls out to the barkeep and everyone else in earshot. “You should be worshipping us,” she yells. “We’re the heroes who killed the Weredragon of Ef’thalm — we’ve saved the world!” When the rogue tastes hesitation, she guts her captive from behind. The auburn boy falls to his knees, spewing and spilling his mortal contents. With all his weight into force, Vay An drives the blade through the swordsman’s arms and face. But by the time he reaches the boy, the rogue is nowhere to be found. Three pools of mud form at the center of the room, catching strands of torchlight. Two reflect red. The barkeep stands towering over the kneeling boy with the bullglaive tightly in Hagen 6
hand, watching him slowly drain. Around the room, patrons sit and stand in inelegant pause, lost in an awkward gulf between the room’s stillness and a conversation they can neither hear nor understand. They come to know it only by its coldness and, soon, by its concision; with the slow descent of falling timber, the auburn boy leans forward and touches forehead to earth. Vay An signals his other boys to come clean up. Through their movements, they coordinate wordless rituals in rhythm: splitting evenly the dead boy’s bracelets and clothes between them, gathering as much of his remains and blood as they can into a tub and taking it to the back room, throwing human pieces into a cart and hauling it outside where they’ll be less visible, and pouring water into two red puddles to ease the color through. Vay An watches them, preoccupied with calculations. As the servers finish, patrons return to their natural states. Joden turns to Pyeter. “Come on. It’s dark soon.” “Why did you do nothing?” the priest asks, his voice all but collapsed. “I told you: this is not our house. You wouldn’t know this about the Qiuhan from reading a book, but a stranger who insults their pride is rarely forgiven. And a friend? Never.” “I don’t care about them. How could you do nothing.” Vay An returns behind the counter. Irritation tints his look as he hangs the bloodied weapon back up on the wall. “Need to lay an extra egg this week,” he says. “Good luck with that,” Joden says. Without another word, Pyeter sets down a few silvers and starts toward the door. Joden catches his arm, meets his eyes, and tries to hand him his untouched greenkrill ale. The priest pulls away and Joden watches him go. “Was there something wrong with the green?” Vay An asks. Hagen 7
Joden takes a generous swig and replies: “No. Probably just not used to the taste.” “Shame. Will you be back soon?” “A day. A month.” “Before you head out.” Vay An calls a boy and says a word in his language, a word Joden wishes he did not know. The boy disappears to the back room. “Vay. I can’t afford that.” The barkeep waves away his concern. After a moment, the boy returns with a small beastskin pouch whose string-tied top is dotted with inhuman blood. Joden declines again, but Vay An’s insistence puts the damp gift in his hand. Joden thanks him. At the door he turns back and holds up the pouch, his palm wetted dark green. “Remind me again?” Vay An smiles. “To undream your sleep. Boil for ten minutes. Drink like tea.”