tagMind ControlTristan's Tale Pt. 04

Tristan's Tale Pt. 04


Author's Note

Well, this story just seems to grow and grow. I could have sent it out sooner, but it wasn't done -- I wanted to put out more than a fragment. I wanted to have a real arc, a sizeable part of Tristan's Tale.

So, I feel I've got to warn you, If you're looking for something quick and dirty, I'd recommend something else.

But if you want some more depth to a story, then you're in the right place. Thanks to everyone who waited for this part -- I read all of your comments and emails and always appreciated hearing from you.


The Traveller's Tavern was an ancient building of weathered stone and old, aged wood. It was the longest standing structure in all of Sicil, the last trading post before the Wastelands. As such, the Tavern was the most treasured of all buildings: the last place to get drunk before the long trek through the dust.

Perhaps it was the collective will of the few that lived in Sicil, their need for the place, which had allowed it to withstand the trials of time's passing. The Traveller's Tavern had seen it all, and had a way of communicating that to any and all who entered its thick, heavy doors. A quiet was imposed on its occupants in the crossing of the threshold, in the shouldering open of the door. Those who entered left their baggage behind: within the walls of the Tavern, all peoples were equal.

The Wastelands were never far from anyone's mind.

Stillness hung in the air like accumulated dust on a windowsill, and Harper eyed the timepiece on the wall. He'd be done cleaning in a few minutes. He was drying down the last of the mugs -- he and the boy had already cleaned the rest of the place. There hadn't been much to clean. All that was left to do was to extinguish the candles, and he'd be fast asleep in his cot up in the attic.

He'd closed down the Tavern early that day -- not much business, as usual. The days were stretching in front of him, his future a yawning, empty chasm of solitude. Seemed there weren't many travellers these days.

He crouched down and placed a mug on the shelf with the others below the counter, peering to make sure they were organized properly. No good bar is left unorganized -- he'd learned that from the start. He stood up, stretching the stiffness in his back and his neck, when he was suddenly aware that he was no longer alone.

A man sat at the bar on a stool, resting his elbows on the counter. More a pile of cloth than a man -- his head tilted down, all that could be seen of him was his thin salt and pepper grey hair. The rest was covered in a thick cloak, dark grey and patched in many places, though not completely. A few rips and holes tore through the side of the fabric. The hood was down, folded on his neck and shoulders.

"We're closed, sir," said Harper, attempting not to betray the concern he felt mounting inside him. How had this man come inside without him noticing? He hadn't even heard the door open, and he left it un-oiled on purpose. It was squeaky as all hell. Made it easy to keep track of the coming and goings of the place.

Then, he noticed the staff.

It was resting on the counter adjacent to the man -- a gnarled, black length of wood, and as evil in appearance as the last time Harper had seen it. Looking at it for too long left his mind filled with whispers, and a malevolence not of this world. He shuddered, and looked away from it, resting his gaze on the hunched form of the man.

"So, you're back," said Harper evenly.

The newcomer's hands were crossed over his forehead, in the sleeves of a tattered brown robe. Without a word, he withdrew one, a wretched, frail thing, a wisp of skin and bone, and with it placed something on the table. He slid it forward toward Harper.

Harper eyed the piece. Silver.

That was a surprise in itself. The Traveller's Inn hadn't seen silver in nearly half a year. Traveling nobles didn't make it out to Sicil much anymore. Not these days, the Wasteland being what it was. The times being what they were.

More surprising, however, was the piece itself. Harper picked it up -- it must have weighed three times a normal silver coin. He hefted it in his hand, peering at the engraving, and his eyes widened in shock. He cleared his throat, and then placed it back on the table.

"So you made it there, did you?" he said, eying the stranger.

A nod was the only reply.

"Eastern coin..." mused Harper, looking at the piece. "You know I can't make change for this."

"A bowl of stew please, if you have any left," said the stranger. The voice was completely mismatched with his appearance -- strong, confident, and not in any way indicative of the age which showed in the colour of his hair or the frailty of his hands.

Harper nodded. "Aye. Not much left in the way of meat," he said.

"That's fine. Thank you."

Harper left the bar and went into the storeroom. He returned with a large bowl of stew, which was at this point only warm, and a loaf of bread.

The man had shifted, and was now sitting tall on the stool with the quarterstaff across his legs. His head hunched over, and partly visible, Harper noticed that he looked at least ten years older than when he had last passed through. Deep lines creased his weathered skin, and his beard was fully white where before it had been flecked black.

The man was whittling down the quarterstaff with a small, white blade. With every stroke of the knife, a sliver of the staff flew into the air, and then dissolved into nothing, as if it was only so much smoke gone too far from the fire which had birthed it. Bit by disappearing bit, the staff became less unsightly, less like a piece of wood found in the remnants of a forest scorched by hellfire, and more like a polished quarterstaff. Even so, the whittling did nothing to mitigate the malice of the weapon, and Harper did not let his gaze linger on it for long. Questioning the disappearing shavings was not an option -- not when you're behind the bar.

He left the bowl before the man, then took one of the knives from behind the bar and cut a few thick slices off a loaf of bread. He passed them over to the man. He knew better than to object to the man's actions, much less his presence in the bar. Harper remembered what had happened the last time he had paid the Traveller's Tavern a visit.

The man received the food graciously, set his quarterstaff against the counter, and pulled up his stool, sitting up straight.

Harper was face to face with him. The man's visage was haunted; his eyes distant, as if he'd just met Death himself. Scars both old and new were scattered across his face -- one in particular flashed down his right eye, which was grey. His left eye was brown. His jaw, while old, was hardened, and there was a sturdiness about his character that belied the power beneath the rags. This was a man that had seen battle -- that much was obvious.

"Thank you," said the man, almost as if not to Harper but to the food, and then picked up the spoon which was in the bowl, and set to eating. Occasionally he would dip his bread in the stew and chew on it slowly. He took his time eating, and didn't spill so much as a crumb on the counter.

Harper had seen soldiers of every flag in the Tavern. None of them ate as properly as this man.

He finished his food, and pushed the bowl across the bar.

"Thank you," he said once more.

Harper nodded. "You'll be needing a place to sleep tonight? On account of your overpayment," he said, nodding toward the piece on the counter.

"No, thank you," replied the man, and he stood up, pushing the stool back in line with the rest of them.

"You don't mean to continue on?" asked Harper, surprised. It was getting dark, and if he'd come from the East, the only place to go on was out into the Wasteland.

"I do," came the stranger's reply. He gathered his quarterstaff into his hand, and used it as a walking stick on his way toward the door.

Harper clicked his tongue. "Things have changed since you last came through. Been many years, and the Wasteland isn't kind to fools. A man can't stick to the road and know he'll be safe."

"I do not intend to stay on the road," came the even reply.

Harper sighed and shook his head. "Well you've either lost your head, or you know better than I. No sane man in all the Haerth would dare explore the Wastes. 'Specially not alone, and 'specially not at night."

The stranger paused, and pulled his hood over his head, looking at the door.

"I do not intend to explore it," he said. "I will be visiting an old friend."

Harper peered closely at the hooded figure. "An old friend? In the Wastes? Nobody lives out there, it's naught but dust and demons. Anyone that used to live there's long since died."

"I know," replied the man, unmoving. He stood there in the silence, and seemed to soak it up. "I do not intend to visit the living."

Harper's eyes widened. He didn't know of anyone who knew of that place. That knowledge was supposed to have been lost long ago. He tapped his fingers on the counter anxiously. "You seriously intend to go there? The dead aren't known for their hospitality."

The stranger turned to face him. "Do you remember what I told you when I last was here?"

Harper nodded. "As if I could forget. Never heard of anyone traveling from Sicil to the Eastern Waters before, and yet right before me was a man saying to my face he'd come all the way from the Plains, and was making for the East." He shook his head. "I would have marked you down for a liar if not for the way you handled those bandits."

A faint smile played in the darkness of the hood. "That was a good fight. Nobody died."

"Aye," said Harper, "stripped naked, and tossed out into the rain, but not dead, no. Though, to some, the loss of pride is as much a death as the loss of their life. But," he said, leaning on the counter, "Even so, I didn't think to see you again. Tell me," he said, his eyes wary, "What are you?"

The stranger looked at Harper in silence. It sent shivers down his spine -- the mismatched eyes beneath the hood betrayed no emotion. They were eyes that could watch the world end without flinching. Sweat beaded on Harper's forehead.

"Ask me instead what you truly wish to know," said the stranger. "Your fear has little to do with me."

Harper gulped, and calmed his nerves. He eyed the silver piece on the counter, then flicked his gaze back to the man at the door. "What...What news from the East?" he asked. "Are the rumours true?"

Silence hung between the two of them, taut enough to slice.


Damn it all. Harper clenched his fists, then let them go with a sigh. "I'll make the necessary preparations. I'm not the first owner of the Traveler's Tavern, and I'll be damned if I'm the last. These walls are tough, and I'll make sure it lasts through the fighting. This place has seen war before."

The stranger looked at Harper, and then around at the building, taking it in as if the history of the place was there before his eyes.

He turned back to Harper with the faintest trace of pity in his eyes. "No, it hasn't," he said softly, then opened the door without it making a sound, and left.

"Ancients above, may they save us all," murmured Harper to the empty room. He stood at the counter in silence for a moment. Sicil was a prized strategic possession, the direct access to the South. It was always a contested territory in the big wars -- not the petty nobles fighting over territory which usually brought in business. That being said, the fighting never spilled into the town proper, and there hadn't been a real war in many years.

The stranger's words hung over his head like a guillotine.

His mind went to the memory of his wife. She'd always made the decisions, the guiding hand behind his usual stalwart composition. What would she have done?

What do I do?

He shook his head, straightened his spine, and finished drying the mugs. He left the candles lit.

"Boy!" he called to the back.

After a moment, a small pipsqueak of a face appeared around the corner of the doorway. His face was creased with the drowsiness of having just been woken up. So young...

"Yes, papa?"

Harper kept his voice even. "...Change out of your nightwear. Get your boots on. I need you out here."

The boy's eyes widened and he disappeared into the back room.

Harper sighed, and looked around the place. There was work to be done.


Jade and I had moved from the fountain to the grass. We were lying down, our faces turned toward the sky. Her head was on my shoulder, my arm wrapped around her. Ember-orange hair sprawled across my chest, and I swore it glowed beneath the stars.

The night was warm, as if it was summer, though I had no idea if they even had seasons here. We were both clothed, she in her white linen pants and a black shirt, me in a similar black shirt and black shorts, but, despite the fabric, the feeling of her body pressed against mine had kindled within me a fire that burned like hot cinnamon rum. It was as if I was the furnace from which summer drew its heat, and she was at once the coals and the billows which kept it alive.

There is a selfish aspect of being with someone to whom you're magnetized -- as if because I'd won this particular lottery I'd won them all. I felt at once powerful and profoundly small, like I could create entire universes with my willpower if only I hadn't been completely entranced by Jade.

"I can hear your heartbeat," she murmured. Her ear was pressed against my chest.

"What does it sound like to you?" I asked.

"Mmm..." she said, focusing on the sound. She listened for a moment. "Like a heartbeat," she said with finality.

I laughed. "Just a heartbeat?"

"Not "just" a heartbeat. It is a good thing, you know, for something to sound like itself. A rare quality, in people," she said.

"True enough," I replied, trailing my fingers over her shoulder. "I've only ever met a few people who really sounded like themselves, if I'm getting what you mean. Most of the people where I'm from don't know who to be like, so they just guess, they act however they think they're supposed to." I scratched my head. "Myself included, I suppose."

"I don't think that's limited to those people," she replied. "It is not an easy thing finding oneself. I'm curious," she added, "what sort of people do you know that you think sound like themselves?"

"Oh, I don't know," I said, thinking back to what I'd said. Jed certainly sounded like himself. Though, the more I thought about it, the less sure I became about what exactly "sounding like oneself" meant.

"Surely you do!" she exclaimed, "Otherwise you would not have said it."

"Er- I was just, I don't know, I was just saying that to give myself time to think."

"Ah," she said, curling up against me, "I see. I forget that you are new here. I think perhaps being honest all the time makes one very literal."

"I can see how that would happen."

"Really?" she asked with surprise, "But how would you see such a thing? Your eyes can't actually see speech, can they?"

I rolled my eyes. "You're joking, right?"

She giggled mischievously. "Maybe." She placed a soft kiss on my cheek, and I damn near melted. "But tell me about these people. I'm curious."

"Well," I replied, trying to focus on the conversation and not the goddess I was having it with, "There's one person, a man named Jed that I know. He may have passed through here, actually. Do you know him? Big guy, very friendly."

"I do not know anyone by that name," she said.

"Well, he's a very honest person, and he loves to tell stories. Helped shape me up a little, so I was a bit less arrogant."

"You? Arrogant?" she asked, incredulous. "Tristan, you have been nothing but humble in the few hours that I have known you. You refused all the praise Emmit dumped on you when we first met, and even now, you haven't said a word to me about how you got that scar! You're quite the legend around here, you know. People's first days are rarely so...complicated."

"Me, a legend?" I scoffed. "Hardly - people just love to tell stories about the things they don't understand. The less you actually know, the more you can make out of it. Like spinning a single fibre into a coat -- you won't be warmed by it."

"True enough," she conceded, "Though the telling of a story only conceals the truth of the matter. It doesn't invalidate it."

"Sure, but so far, it sounds to me like the stories are only based on my disappearance, not on anything I've done. At least, I don't feel like much of a legend."

"Well I suppose I won't press the point. I wasn't saying much. Just that, based on what I've seen, I have a hard time imagining arrogance living inside you." The way she said seen sent shivers down my spine, like she really had seen me, and I remembered when she'd held my gaze and stared into me, how tangible that had been. How bare I'd felt.

"Yeah, I can't take a compliment, I know. But that's different, I meant a different sort of arrogance," I explained. "I'd show up to work late, wouldn't treat customers with respect, didn't care what others thought of me. That sort of thing."

"The kind of arrogance where one assumes the world will just work out for them," she said.

"Yeah, exactly. What I did didn't matter, I didn't consider whether or not I could hurt people. Stuff like that." I sighed, and scratched my head. "Jed, well, he kicked my ass, told me to shape up and why. Something about that guy, when you talk to him, it's like you're only talking to him. Nothing going on besides him."

"That is a good kind of person to know. Kiara has proved to be one such person for me, here."

"Kiara? She's one of the Odieh, right?" The one who'd mastered seduction. I didn't say that last part, but man, was it on my mind. What exactly had she passed on to Jade?

"Yes. She is a fine shaper of Clay. I get personal lessons from her every so often, when she has the time."

"Personal lessons?" I asked. "How did you go about making that happen?"

"I won last year's Clay shaping tournament," she said, "and Kiara got in touch with me afterwards. She liked my work, apparently. One thing led to the next, you know how it goes."

"Sounds like winning the tournament has some perks," I commented.

"Mhm," she said, and brought a hand to rest on my chest. "But let's not talk about that. Tell me about you. Tristan the Bold, more or less finished with his first day at Caer'Aton!"

"Give or take a few weeks..." I muttered.

"Two and a half," she pointed out, "and you weren't even conscious for them, so they don't count."

"Fair enough," I acceded. "Still, it's far from a comfortable entrance. More like Tristan the Unconscious. Though," I said, pulling her close and kissing her forehead, "Things didn't end up so bad."

"Not so bad?" she asked.

"Well, comparing this to my life back home, I don't have complaints."

"I see," she said. "Well, I admit I am curious, but it is not considered polite to inquire about another's life before their arriving in Caer'Aton."

I slowly twirled a finger through her hair. It was soft and bouncy, with a nice consistency and a tendency to make small curls around my finger. "Well, I guess I can see why that's so. It's not really a problem for me, there just isn't much to say."

"I don't believe that for one minute," she said seriously.

"Oh no? Why not?"

"Because it's your life that I am asking about!" she exclaimed. "I don't think it is possible for someone to be alive and to not have much to say about it. Even if life feels empty and hopeless..." she said, trailing off, lost somewhere in her memory. Her energy, her vibe, whatever it was, dimmed. I sensed a shift in her - an inward tightening, as if she sensed danger. "There are many shades of bleak," she finished softly.

I loved the way she spoke. In a way, it was as if she wasn't entirely here ever, that she was only temporarily visiting this plane of existence. I wanted so desperately to know this person, this wild and mysterious creature, but it felt impossible on some level. But, hey, if there was ever anything impossible that I'd try and do anyways, getting to know Jade would probably be it.

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