Damn that screw of a horse for kicking the bucket in the middle of a thunderstorm. Two weeks without a drop of anything and now it's raining cats and dogs!
The stranger staggered on the street of the small village, hunched under the weight of his backpack and the saddlebag he was forced to carry under the heavy shower of rain.
And of course there was no room in the first inn… And naturally, the next one is on the other side of this bloody hick town!
He was still swearing under his breath as the sign of the Two Mugs came into view in the fading light. He sighed, feeling cold, dirty and tired, praying to every deity he knew for even a free closet. Otherwise, he would have to cut down a guest to make room for himself.
Inside he was greeted by the jangle of the crowd; it seemed he wasn't the only one seeking shelter, though he hoped that most of them were locals who had their own homes to sleep in. Miraculously he found a free table near the corner, so he sat down after getting his baggage off his shoulders with a loud groan.
He had to wait for what seemed like forever. He was just starting to grow impatient when an ugly, mountain of a woman stomped over to him, stopping with her fists propped on her cow sized waist.
"What do you want?" The mistress of the place growled with her eyes narrowed.
The stranger felt a sudden urge to stab her through with a dagger, but his rumbling stomach advised otherwise. He retrieved his pouch from between the layers of his clothes and smashed a round, shiny silver on the table.
"Dinner, room, and a tub of hot water, but if you don't want my money I can go elsewhere." He snapped with honest annoyance. He hoped that the hag had no idea about the other inn's full house. He saw a flash in those piercing, pig-like eyes, a flash that signaled someone who had constant hunger for coins.
"You got it." The woman barked. "The chicho will take your stuff up." She snatched up the silver like a snake and strode away, shouting for someone.
It didn't take too long for a skinny youngster to appear. The man looked him over doubtfully. He seemed like he was ready to die any second; the grey, torn clothes hung loosely around his thin form.His long, dirty hair was plastered to his face and was covered in grime, which kept his features hidden. He was short and the stranger pegged him to be around thirteen years.
Well, I'll be damned if he can take my packs up the stairs…
Against all odds, it seemed that his prediction was wrong.The brat – although slowly – worked everything to his back and started to make his way to the other side of the room on shaky legs. But, the boy didn't get very far, as an ill-disposed boot reached out from under one of the tables, tripping him so he ended up on the dirty floor, face first.
"Whoa! There are fragile things in there!" The stranger shouted over the laughter of the crowd, and he was just about to stand when the fat woman rushed over, grabbing the youth by the front of his shirt, and slapped him twice with enough force to make the people sitting around flinch.
"Didn't I tell you, you filthy little chicho, that I will break you in half the next time you mess up? I swear you're only living to anger me! Get yourself together, or I will throttle you!" She screamed, throwing the motionless body to the floor and stomping away.
After she left, the man walked over to see if the kid was even alive but to his surprise, he scrambled away like he had been burnt the second he touched him.
Suit yourself, brat… I just wanted to give you a hand.
"Don't bother with the baggage, just get that water ready." He barked to the boy, who stood up with his back flush against the wall, wiping away the thin trail of blood dripping from his nose. The lad nodded and scurried away.
The stranger noted with irritation, that someone sat down on the other chair at his table in the few seconds he wasn't there. The old man was smoking a long pipe and looked harmless enough with his thick, white mustache. But company was something he had no need for tonight.
"I hope you don't mind, brother, but there was no free seat elsewhere." He rumbled, taking a long drag from the pipe.
It seemed the gramps misunderstood his bad mood, and he nodded the way the brat disappeared.
"Don't think bad of him, brother, that is a good boy, he just has a hard life."
"Who? That Chicho, or what was his name?" The second the question left his mouth, he rolled his eyes inwardly. There were millions of people having 'bad lives' but that didn't mean he was the least bit interested in them. But he just had to open his big mouth…
"Nah, that's not a name, that's just something the locals say around here." The old man said, waving a hand around.
"And what does it mean? I travel enough, but never heard that word before…" Not like he was curious.
"Well, it's mostly used for mongrel dogs… You know, when the pure breed hounds get mixed with a stray." He explained.
"So… you mean the kid is a bastard?" The stranger asked with his face darkening, but the gramps misinterpreted his reaction again.
"Oh, it's not Yker's fault, I assure you! His mother was… weak in the head, if you know what I mean."
The conversation was interrupted by the mistress' appearance; she put down a mug of beer in front of the old man, and a tray of food with a flask of wine for the stranger.
The geezer didn't continue until she was out of hearing range, but the man had no ears for him. The dinner looked delicious; half of a crispy chicken covered in honey and herbs, with a large portion of mashed potatoes, topped with stewed tart cherries. It was truly heavenly. From the first bite he took he heard none of the story his company was telling, but as his hunger subsided, his attention slowly returned.
"… the sister of the innkeeper. One day she just wandered into the woods, and didn't come out. The villagers were searching for her for days, but found no trace of the poor thing. Everybody accepted that she was eaten by the wolves or had fallen into a gorge. But, one month later she simply walked out at the same place she disappeared, with no harm done to her. She was humming one of those silly tunes she always did and held a bunch of wild flowers, but wouldn't say a word about where she was. You can understand the innkeeper's surprise, when they noticed that she was bearing a child. No one knew who the father was, maybe an outlaw or a vagrant… she never said." The old man took a break to have a drink of his beer, and then wiped his mustache with the back of his hand.
"The poor thing died not long after giving birth to Yker. Mikosh, the innkeeper was a good man and took the orphan without hesitation, although his head isn't right either.
"Really?" The stranger couldn't help the question escaping him, because he didn't notice the dullness of the simpleminded in the brat's eyes.
"He's smart enough, but he is dumb; no sound left his mouth since he came to this word."
Well, that makes carrying my bags without complaining a small achievement…
"Things turned from bad to worse when Mikosh died two years ago from the dry-coughing. Since then, this witch does everything in her power to make him miserable." The gramps leaned a little closer, like he was about to share secret information.
"She thinks that the boy is cursed."
The stranger pulled his mouth into a grimace. He learned long ago, that only the weak blamed the gods and other things for their misfortune; using that excuse to explain why they couldn't change their own fate for the better.
"Malika says, that Yker is the reason why they never had their own child." The old man added as an afterthought, leaning back in his chair and blowing out a cloud of smoke that covered both of them.
If I had a wife like that, I would do everything I could to stay as far away as possible. Maybe she should look into a mirror before making up such things…
"Well, thank you for the company, uncle, but if you don't mind I would like to retire." The man said as he finished his dinner. The other gave him a nod, his eyes already searching for fresh ears to listen to his stories.
The stranger made his way up the narrow, steep stairs, thinking that if he falls and breaks his neck, that hag will rob his dead body for sure. It was almost a relief to find his poor excuse of a room in the end of the corridor at the back of the inn. It was barely more than a cell illuminated with a pair of candles, since it had gotten dark outside.There was an alcove in the back with a wooden tub in the middle. The boy was just pouring the last bucket of hot water in it.
The man could hardly wait to have a well deserved bath; he shed his clothes in a hurry. He grabbed one of the candles and walked in on the brat, who stumbled out of his way clumsily, not even daring to raise his head. He sloshed into the tub with a satisfied sigh, noticing with annoyance, that the lad was still lingering in the corner.
"What are you standing around for? Get back in half an hour with clean towels." He snapped, and the kid rushed out in a flash.
Finally, alone… I thought this day would never end. I have to find a new horse soon, or they will catch up, and I would rather not wait for that…
The warmth relaxed his tensed muscles even though he couldn't stretch his legs. He rubbed the stubble on his chin, grateful for the lack of mirrors; he would probably have a heart-attack if confronted with his reflection. If everything goes perfectly, his clothes should dry during the night, since the summer heat had stuck in the little room.
He washed his hair with a groan, it felt heavenly to get rid of the dirt of the road. But, as he cleaned himself he couldn't help thinking that people were the same everywhere. They showed no mercy for the weak, especially for those who had enough problems without them. Like the kid; not enough that he was a bastard, an orphan, and dumb on top of it, that silly story about being cursed must make his life even more miserable. He understood it. Everybody had a hard life, one way or the other.He never met anyone who was content and happy with themselves, but he hated that people kicked into the helpless to make themselves feel better.
He shook his head to get rid of the excess water like a wet dog. It was futile to think about things like this, he had no cure for it, and it was none of his business anyway. His kind had to keep away from others and their problems; he would be gone tomorrow, and would probably never come back.
The stranger leant back and closed his eyes, chasing the heavy thoughts away, and tried to concentrate on his next move. He took this road to shake off his pursuers, but he had a feeling that it didn't work. Which meant that he made a detour in vain. Not good at all…
He heard the door of the room open with a quiet creak, and his muscles tensed unintentionally. For a second he cursed himself for leaving all his weapons out there, but as he saw the lad, he relaxed again.
And what exactly would I do with a dagger in the tub? With my luck, I would cut off something important accidentally…
"Don't just stand there, for the sake of the Light! Bring those towels!" He shouted out, and the brat stumbled in, even more beaten up than before if that was possible. He grabbed the towels with a frown.
"This is what they call clean here?" The fabric was full of old smears of dirt, but under the dim light of the candle he noticed a few spots that were darker and seemed fresh. He felt his eyebrows rise as he realized what they were.
He ran his gaze over the boy who was standing by the wall, shifting from one foot to the other, he couldn't see any injuries, but the kid kept his hands behind his back.
"Show me your hand!" The stranger ordered gruffly and the youth started to shake. After a few seconds of hesitation he stepped closer, reaching out his left, which looked unharmed under the dirt.
"Nice try, but I want to see the other too." The boy was trembling so hard now, that the man was afraid that he would fall apart, but he complied. There was a cut on his palm and another long one on the underside of his forearm. The man examined it with a frown, it was hard to see how bad they were with the blood already clotted over them, but he knew what kind they were. The child tried to defend himself from something sharp that was aimed at his head or chest. He felt his face darken.
"Wait for me in the room!" He commanded, and the little one rushed out.
Why? Why do I have to meddle with things that have nothing to do with me?
He got out of the tub and dried himself quickly, wrapping the towel around his waist. He saw with satisfaction that the boy obeyed, though judging by the way he kept glancing at the door, he was ready to fly any second.
There's no use in patching him up with all the dirt… It would just get infected.
"Get in there and clean up." He barked. The lad looked at him with wide, uncertain eyes, like he expected a beating and not a chance to bathe. "Go on as long as it's still warm, don't make me repeat it!" That seemed to break the stupor he was in, and the boy stumbled into the alcove in a hurry.
The stranger dressed back into his under-linen, it was almost dry already, and took the things he needed from his bag. In his line of work, bandages and balms were a necessity. This ointment was something he made himself, and it worked not only on cuts, or his horse's strained leg, but also on stiff locks. He used it practically for everything.
As he finished he wanted to shout for the kid, but stopped himself.
Well, I guess that youngster - Yker, was it? - has enough grime to soak off…
He didn't have to wait for too long, a few minutes later the boy was standing before him; he got back into his shaggy clothes and tied his long hair back with a string.
The stranger felt his eyebrows rise. Yker had light, straw-blond hair and surprisingly tan skin, complete with hazel colored eyes. And with the dirt gone, he seemed older, maybe around sixteen. The stranger frowned. It took someone months of travel and crossing the sea to find people with skin like that, but they never had pale hair… It was truly strange.
The man patted the bed beside him, and the boy complied nervously, looking skittish as his injured hand was taken by the other.
The cuts opened again, and were oozing blood. The stranger would have asked a white priest to close it with an incantation, but he had a feeling that this village had none.
"This will sting a bit, but bear with it." He mumbled, opening the jar of ointment. The room was instantly filled with the smell of herbs, and Yker leaned closer, his nose sniffing the air like a little animal.
He didn't even flinch from the pain as his hand was taken care of and wrapped in white linen. After it was done, he examined the work closely, curling his fingers and rolling his wrist experimentally. He looked up at the stranger and gave him a smile that lit the place.
The man felt his eyes rounding. Who knew that all that grime hid such a treasure underneath? He paled at the thought of what a man could do in such a secluded room with a boy who had no means to ask for help. Not him, of course. The child must have misunderstood his angry look, because his smile vanished like it was never there, and he stood up, inching for the door.
"You can go." The man told him tiredly, rubbing his chin and falling back to the bed. The door closed with a soft creak.
Yker rushed down the stairs, not able to wrap his mind around the man. He seemed rude enough, but then why did he help him? Maybe it was better not to ponder on it. He hurried into the kitchen, hoping that his absence wasn't noticed, but he had no such luck…
"Where in the seven hells have you been?" Malika screamed, grabbing his ponytail and twisting it. "And just what do you look like, you little slut?" Her eyes fell on the bandage and she turned an even darker shade of red.
"Who did that, you filthy chicho? I swear if you could talk, you wouldn't stop complaining for a second to chase all my guests away!" She pulled his hair, till the string gave, his wet locks falling into his face again, then gave him a push, that sent him to the floor.
"Gah! I don't care! Collect the dishes, you little maggot, and hurry up with it.They need to be washed before morning." She said, sending him on his way with a kick.
Yker went around the room with his heart heavy, piling the plates and hiding the bigger bones in his apron. He thought about running away hundreds of times, but he had nowhere to go, only the woods. He liked the woods; Mikosh always let him wander around with the grey, but Mikosh was no more, and the grey had been trapped in that tiny cage.
Malika couldn't stand the dog, because he always protected Yker, showing off his huge, white canines while growling at her. Now he could only let him out when his aunt was out, or drank herself into unconsciousness.
He took the dishes out through the back door, but didn't start washing them. In stead he crunched down by the thick wooden fence that trapped the grey inside. He fed the dog the bones he found, chewing off the meat that was still stuck to them before offering it to the animal.
The wet, black nose was so huge, that it couldn't reach out between the planks, but he felt the soft breath on his fingers, making his heart clench. Malika said that the next time he lets out the grey, she will ask the hunters to kill him. Yker felt like crying. He missed the grey, he missed burying his head in the wiry, ash colored fur, but there was nothing he could do.
He was just feeding the dog the last bone, when he heard his aunt's voice calling for him. He clicked his tongue as a goodbye for the animal, then ran inside not wanting to anger her further.
The woman was waiting for him at the front door, with a finely dressed couple.
"Escort them to the Golden Carp." She spat. "I may already be sleeping by the time you get back, but I don't want to see any dirty dishes when I wake up." Yker nodded.
They had two horses, but used only one;the woman sitting in front of her husband, pain clear on her face. She was obviously pregnant, but the boy has seen enough women with child to know that it wasn't her time yet. He grabbed the reins and quickened his steps on the dark road. They must have wanted to rent a cart at the other inn to get them into the next town,where they have white priests.
Yker loved babies. He used to go to their neighbors' when their daughter was born; amazed at how small and pink and wrinkled she was… Until Malika found out and told them that he was cursed, and after that he wasn't allowed to even look at the little one. It made him so angry. He was not cursed! But he couldn't defend himself, and people looked at him like he had the plague.
The road was slippery from the rain, but his eyes grew accustomed to the dark without any problem. He always found his way around in the night, while others stumbled blindly.He figured it was because he had to work after sunset so much.
He heard a pained moan from behind, and tried to concentrate on leading the horses clear of any holes that would shake the lady. Even with his sight, it took almost half an hour to get to the Golden Carp, but as soon as they stopped in front of it, he ran inside to get the innkeeper. He was a nice man, and knew Yker, so he didn't ask questions just followed him outside.
In a few minutes the couple was comfortably settled in a cart, the woman waved him over and gave him a copper with a tired smile.
"Thank you sweetheart, don't let that harpy take it away." She said, and the cart rode away in the dark. The boy just stood there for a while, gazing after them, when he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder.
"Have you eaten yet, little brother?" The innkeeper asked, and when he shook his head, he gave him a nice little round loaf of bread. Yker smiled at him gratefully.
"Sit down out here and eat it while it's still warm." He said, leaving him alone.
The lad sat on the edge of the bottom step, munching on the food, pondering if he should take half of it back to the grey.But he hadn't eaten anything since morning, so he decided against it with a touch of guilt.
He only had two bites left when two horsemen stopped by the inn. For some reason Yker felt a shiver run through him as he took them in; one was a short, stocky fellow with blond hair, and the other a tall, dark one. Both armed with long, well used swords.
As they walked by him the taller one gave him a long, piercing glance that made his blood go cold. He was just about to leave for home, when he heard their voices from the open door.
"We are looking for someone, he calls himself Phargo; he's average built, with dark, curly hair, and sly grey eyes.Have you seen him? His horse gave up during the storm not far from here." The blond said, and there was something cruel in his face, even though Yker could only see the side of it.
They… They are searching for that man… Though I think his eyes are more smart than sly…
The innkeeper must have felt the same unease he did, because he was reluctant to answer.
"And what kind of business do you have with him?" He asked guardedly.
"We want to settle a debt. Someone who works as hard as yourself should understand that things like that can't be left alone." The blond grinned.
"Well, that's true I guess… Yes, there was a man like that. He wanted a room, but I have a full house so I sent him to the other side of the village to the Two Mugs." The innkeeper offered.
"Thank you! Would you mind bringing us a cup of wine before we set off?" The short man asked, flashing a silver, and the innkeeper happily complied.
"Don't worry, friend. A few minutes won't make a difference, we will settle that debt before the sun rises." The blond promised, and the tall fellow lifted his hand to his throat with a devilish grin. Yker noticed the ugly, long scar across his neck, and felt himself pale as the man's hand caressed it, then shifted down to the pommel of his sword.
He was running on the road before his mind could even catch up, his heart was hammering in his chest, telling him to run faster and faster.
They will kill him… They will kill him. They will kill him! Phargo… That's his name, I have to warn him somehow!
He had no idea why it seemed so important to help, or why he felt like that name should make a difference, since he could never use it.But there was something that kept pushing him. The dark was not slowing him, but his tired body staggered to keep up with his determination. He had to get back in time.
Frightening thoughts swirled around in his head. What if they already finished their drink? What if they rode on the horses even in the dark? What if they catch up in the next second?
The sight of the Two Mugs gave him new strength. He saw with relief that there were no lights in the windows, meaning that those men had to wake his aunt to get in. He had no such problem; the stone wall surrounding the croft had a hole, just big enough for him to sneak in. It was covered by a bush Malika planted, because it was cheaper than mending it. He climbed through; not caring about the branches scratching his skin, then ran around to the back-door. He was on the upper floor in a flash, without making any noise, and snuck into the room at the end of the corridor.
Yker had no idea how he will make the man understand his warning, but he was desperate to try.
Phargo knew someone came into his room long before he heard anything.It was instinct that kept him alive this long,and it was screaming in his head to watch out. He kept his breathing even; the most important thing was to wait for his best moment in such situations.
He felt a touch on his shoulder, and although it didn't seem harmful, the fact that his visitor has obviously forgotten to knock or say anything was troubling.
He grabbed the guy by the neck and smashed him against the wall with the speed of a cobra.He only started to question his actions after the other did nothing to defend himself, nor attack. A pair of bony hands clutched his wrist as he held the intruder securely by his throat.He pushed the curtains open, letting the faint moonlight wash over the room.
"Oh, damn brat! I could have killed you!" He hissed letting the boy go, who was looking at him with huge, frightened eyes.
"What the hell are you doing here?" He asked, but the youth put a hand on his mouth and shook his head, signaling that he should stay quiet. It seemed like the kid was listening for something for a second, then he let go of Phargo and started to roam around the room, throwing everything he found into his bags hurriedly.
"Hey, hey! What the…" The man hissed quietly, but at that second he heard it too; knocking from the front door.
"Who…?" Yker jumped up and raised his hand meaningfully, stepping closer like he wanted to stab him, and Phargo stifled a string of curses as he understood the message. He wasted no time and jumped into his still wet clothes, helping the boy pack. He knew he couldn't take everything; he blindly searched for the roll of paper which was the most important above anything else and hid it in the folds of his shirt. By the time they finished, the knocking had evolved into outright what's worse, they heard a door creak open, signaling that the mistress of the inn was awake.
"Now what?" He whispered, looking at the boy. He couldn't get out through the front or back door, that would mean descending the stairs and then he would surely be seen.
Yker opened the window and motioned for him to follow.
Is he real? I'm not a bird, even if it's only one storey high.
The brat saw him hesitate and grabbed his hand, to show him that the back of the house wasn't made of stone like the front, but from large logs, which they could use almost as a ladder.
He still wasn't convinced, but the kid was already out, making his way down the wall like it was the easiest thing in the world.
The fact that you move like a bloody squirrel doesn't mean I won't break my neck… He fumed inside, but had no other option than try his luck.
He was almost surprised that they made it to the ground in one piece, even with his pack weighing him down. The boy grabbed his hand again and pulled him to the back of the croft; the surrounding wall was lower here, reaching only to Phargo's shoulder, and he threw his bag over, climbing it with ease.
He looked back at the kid who just stood there, biting his bottom lip, wondering what to do. He needed a broken leg more than a companion, but Yker did help him.
"Have they seen you?" He asked in a whisper. The lad thought for a second then nodded, paling considerably. The man stretched out his hand with a muttered curse.
"Then come!" The boy took a step towards him, but then his eyes widened like he just realized something and waved at Phargo to go ahead.
"Damn brat!" He hissed, looking after the retreating form and jumped down on the other side. The trees started about a dozen feet away, without transition, like a tall, dark wall separating the wilderness and the civilization.
He hid in the cover of the trees, waiting for the boy, but he thought his eyes played tricks on him as a large, dark shadow flew over the wall, disappearing into the woods not too far away from him. He had no time to ponder on it though, since the next second the child climbed over the fence too.
"What's gotten into you?" He hissed, getting no answer naturally. The boy grasped the sleeve of his shirt and dragged him into the forest with surprising confidence.
So, this is my new story, I hope you will like it.
I know I should be writing Desert Wind and Daniel & Max, but this plot just wouldn't leave me alone.
You can expect longer chapters than those of my other fics, but unfortunately that means that I won't be able to update that often.
Please leave me a review, and let me know what you think! ^^