The Tavern Cursed
Part One – The Souk of the Crimson Mists
A puzzled look flashed across the broad and honest face of the young woman with the auburn hair that had been bound behind her head with a simple leather thong. Amongst the thronging evening crowds of the souk that jostled about, she seemed out of place, a wild animal on edge, untamed fury that boiled beneath the surface, barely restrained. Though the patrons of the souks came from a myriad of cultures and peoples, and were clad in an equally varied array of clothing, from fine robes of silk and linen togas, to rough wool, slave tunics and peasant rags, she stood out by the sheer nature of her elemental vitality that came from beyond civilisation, rough edges yet to be smoothed, as a lion stood out among jackals. It showed in her fierce amber eyes and in her clean cut, tanned limbs, as much as in the well worn armour of leather and mail that encased her form, and in the heavy broadsword sheathed across her back, the leather bound hilt worn smooth by use. Her carriage and movements were those of a tiger than had caught the scent of something not before encountered, leaving it wary and on edge, yet unafraid. Despite her confident demeanour she exuded, she remained young still, a youth much confused by the antics of the civilised men who lived in the great cities of the plains.
“Are you certain of this?” she asked of the man who stood at her side, her eyes reflecting her unease with the situation. Tall and lanky, the man had none of the hard edges that so marked the woman. His face, long and languid, was pale in colour, while dark hair capped his head. Elegantly dressed, his outfit had been cut from the finest of cloth and tailored by a master’s hand so it fitted him to perfection. Loose crimson trousers were tucked into boots of soft, black leather that reached to his nears, where they were folded over. He wore a baggy white shirt of silk imported from the distant lands of Xuan, replete with wide collards and cuffs, the both edged with lace. Over the short he wore a black vest into which were embroidered complex patterns of fines and leaves and flowers, in crimson and golden thread. Black too was the baldric that slashed across his chest, edged with further gold thread, from which was supported a slender rapier, the bucket hilt that emerged from the scabbard gilded.
“My dear Peregrine, It is tradition,” he replied in the tones of one who sounded but half awake, his part lidded eyes doing little to dissuade that view. “If you are to become accustomed to the ways and customs of the cities, then you must be prepared to surrender some of your notions and conceptions, to compromise in an effort to fit it.”
The young woman bristled at the suggestion, her face setting with a hard, dangerous expression while her eyes blazed like amber bale-fire. “An Aedring does not surrender, not to anyone or anything. Nor does an Aedring compromise. We are unyielding and unchanging.”
The tall man sighed languorously and have an apologetic shrug to the object of their discussion, a short man with a face like that of a fierce hawk, his cheeks sunken eyes piercing and with a sharp, curved nose like that of a beak. His head had been shaved smooth but for a single braid that hung from the right side of his head, and this had been dyed a deep red. He wore but a simple robe of pale blue, his hands tucked away into the voluminous sleeves that he folded across his chest. Around his neck hung a string of well worn wooden bears, alternating in colours of ebony and ivory. A monk of some order, of which one neither was exactly aware, for the great city of Qaiqala, the Jewel of the Swordlands, played host to a vast array of temples, beliefs and philosophies beyond measure, he fixed upon them an expectant, dark eyed gaze, one assured that he would get that which he expected. Few there were that could match Peregrine’s gaze when such a mood had descended upon her, and not recoil from it, yet he stood their unmoving and unflinching, those dark eyes locked to hers.
“I had heard yours were an obstinate people,” the tall man remarked, “Stiff necked and unyielding. I have known you but a week and already can see that the tales do not ring false. It is little wonder that none have conquered your people, for they would make most terrible subjects.”
“Many have tried in the past, Blade,” she responded, her gaze remaining fixed upon the monk. “None have succeeded. The lands of the high hills are a harsh place, and breed a hardy people, grown strong by the simple struggles to survive. You men of the city would not last half a day in Aedring lands, for you do not have those worries, and have grown soft and complacent as a result, concerned only with your luxurious and debaucheries. But that is neither here nor there. I repeat, why does this man demand coin from us in return for the warding off of his curses?”
“It is tradition, Peregrine,” Blade tried to explain again.
The one called Peregrine grunted irritably, clearly set on edge by events, her patience fraying to a razor’s edge. “The Aedring do not take kindly to threats, nor to those who would call dooms down upon others through mummery and the supernatural.”
Blade slowly shook his head, both amused and bemused by his new companion, yet already he knew better than to display such emotions openly to her. From beneath his vest he removed a small leather pouch. “You have much to learn,” he told her as he started to draw open the strings of the pouch. The monk’s hand emerged from the concealment of his sleeve and he held it open. Blade poured the contents of the pouch into it, a collection of small copper coins worn smooth through much use and handling, and a pair of silver coins as well, in size no larger than the coppers. The hand disappeared back into the sleeve and, without a word spoken, the monk turned and walked away, merging in with the varied crowd that thronged about the souk, there to sample the many shops and stalls, taverns and establishments that lined it, whether of a legal nature or not.
“Does no one do aught about this blatant extortion?” Peregrine demanded of Blade, a deep scowl etching the features of her young face.
“Extortion? No, you misunderstand the nature of the transaction. Come, let us have a drink and I will try and explain the matter to you.”
He looked around the souk, known to all by the name of the Crimson Mists, a market place beneath a bright cloth that stretched out across it to provide shade, into which narrow passageways led between tight clustered buildings, and his eye came to rest upon a tavern across the way. A wooden sign swung above its old wooden door, bearing the curious image of a goat leaning on a shovel, illuminated by the torches that lit the evening markets. “That one,” he said, pointing across the crowds to the tavern. He could not explain the reasoning behind choosing that particular one over any other, beyond, perhaps, that the sign in some matter piqued his interest, but at some fundamental level, buried away so that it barely registered even on a subconscious level, it felt the right choice to make, as if the pieces of some vast, utterly distant puzzle had come together.