Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Fletcher Booher
The tavern was old- it smelled of manure and smoke, grime and dirt salted the stone floor, and the dim light revealed walls stained with ale. A man was sitting on the ground against the corner of the wall furthest from the bar. He had one leg fully stretched out in front of him; he bent his other knee up near his face as he hunched forward, the sole of that shoe planted firmly into the dusty floor.
He wore a dark cloak with the hood over his head and held a mug of ale in one hand, resting that arm on top of his bent knee. His weight was shifted towards his other hand which braced against the floor, supporting him. He sat there motionless, eyes fixed on the golden liquid in front of his face.
The hooded man was familiar with Old Mason’s Tavern, too familiar, and many who frequented the tavern were too familiar with him. At times he would drink himself to a fit of rage, cursing and spitting at others who had done him no wrong. Sometimes this would cause a fight to break out, which usually involved his getting roughed up by someone, or several, a bit more sober than he.
Still, most couldn’t help but like the man. He would tell great tales of his past glory days when he had drunk way too much, which was the case every time he visited Old Mason’s. Nobody believed the stories, but they were good fun. He would say that he was once a very important person, and bragged of his kindness and generosity to others. One of his favorite stories to tell was of the time, while riding upon his horse, he came across a poor beggar. The beggar was naked, covered only by his blood, writhing on the ground in pain like a worm that had just been crushed but not quite killed. Apparently he had been dragged outside the city, beaten and left for dead by a few cruel men who thought it was good sport. Compassion filled the hooded man (or so he said), and he put the poor beggar on his horse, rode him back to his father’s castle, and had his injuries tended.
This was a favorite story of those who listened to the man sitting in the corner, and there was more to it. As if claiming that he was important and whose father had owned a castle weren’t enough, the hooded man went on to say how he taught the beggar the ways of Barah from Barah’s Book! Indeed, the hooded man even claimed to have given the vagabond a servant’s sort of job in his father’s castle, and paid him well for his service too.
It seems that even this was not the end of the story, but by the time the man sitting in the corner ever got that far, his audience started howling and laughing so loudly that he was too upset to finish it. Instead, he would throw his beer down on the table, put his hood up over his head, and stagger out of the tavern, which only increased the howling and laughter.
This day, the cloaked man sitting in the corner was only on his fifth drink, hardly enough to make him tipsy. Barely moving his hand towards his mouth, he leaned his upper body forward and took a swig from his mug, then assumed the position he held prior.
A few of the other Old Mason regulars were observing him. They knew of his antics, of his rantings and ravings, of his stories and even of his fights, but this they did not know. Never had they seen him so withdrawn from the rest in the pub, sitting all alone in the corner. Sometimes before he was drunk he would keep to himself, but once he was drunk he was either very angry, very talkative and reminiscent, sarcastic and prone to tell raunchy and witty stories, or some combination of the three.
As soon as he walked in today however, he went to the counter, got a mug of ale, and proceeded directly to the corner where he was now sitting. He would drink periodically from his cup, but far more slowly than usual, especially if one’s intention was to get drunk. Every time his cup ran out, he would look inside to be sure it was empty, then, very slowly, get up off the floor and head to the bartender to refill his glass, always keeping his hood on and head down.
This was his pattern for a few hours, and now he had reached the end of his fifth mug.
“Watch ‘em, he’ll look inside his glass to be sure it’s empty, then come back for more,” said one of the regulars who was seated at the bar with two fellow onlookers.
“Poor fellow, looks like he’s even lost joy in being drunk. Ain’t much left in life for a drunkard at that point,” said another.
As predicted, the man sitting in the corner looked inside his cup. He sighed as he slowly rose to his feet, and began walking leisurely in the direction of the bartender. But about halfway there he abruptly stopped, startling the three onlookers. Any crisp action, even if the action was simply stopping, was completely out of character for him today. With his head facing downward towards the floor, he slowly reached up and took his hood off, revealing a flushed, dusty face and long, greasy hair that was matted and bunched from being stuffed inside the hood.
He then raised his head and turned impassively to the men at the bar who watched him warily. The one closest to the hooded man rose to his feet, while the two behind him leaned back and prepared themselves to get up as well. The greasy-haired man had been known to fight, but today he was acting so strangely they didn’t know what to expect.
The hooded man stared at the men near the bar for a few moments, then released his gaze without a word or any signs of emotion and turned to leave the tavern. The tavernmaster, quite familiar with him, had also taken notice of the odd behavior and yelled after him from behind the bar as he was exiting.
“Breckinhill! Just where do you think you are going with my mug?”
Breckinhill stopped as he had done moments before, turning to face the tavernmaster. He was half way out the door of the tavern, blocking the entranceway. Then after a prolonged pause he hurriedly put his hood back on, sat his mug on a barrel that was next to the door, and walked out.
The tavernmaster turned to the three men at the bar and sighed. “Ah, Breckinhill, he is a character ain’t he? Never seen him moping around like this though. Hope he makes it to wherever he’s goin’ by tomorrow.”
The cool fall air was truly invigorating and refreshing compared to the musty tavern, but you would never have guessed it from observing Breckinhill. His demeanor and posture stayed the same. His shoulders were slumped forward slightly, and he still held his head low under his hood. He began ambling down the little dirt street towards the market which was about a tenth to a quarter mile away.
A breeze began to blow, compelling Breckinhill to tuck his threadbare tunic that he wore beneath his cloak into his tattered pants, keeping the wind from getting underneath and reaching his skin. It was getting quite dark, and the markets were about to close, so not many people passed by. The few that did pass Breckinhill did not acknowledge, not even when he brushed against someone just outside the market gate.
The market itself was relatively small, with only a handful of wares and goods on each side of the little strip, with two rows of shops behind the front row shops. Most of the vendors were nearly as poor as their patrons. Indeed, since the sacking of the country Damascas twenty years earlier by King Salazar of the northern bordering country Sydon, people had very little money, and even less freedom.
Many, especially in the larger cities and boroughs, were ordered to work for King Salazar on whatever project he wanted done, usually growing crops, sometimes building things. Often they would have to work twelve hours a day, and were not paid unless they had no food. If they had no food, they were given two shiners a day, just enough to get a piece of fruit and perhaps a few slices of bread. This was simply to keep them alive, but many still died from starvation, malnourishment, or lack of drinkable water. Boys as young as eight were required to do manual labor, and sometimes girls as young as eleven or twelve were working and cooking for King Salazar, his guests, and his people of Sydon.
The Sydons were cruel, merciless people, taking after their King. What’s worse, they hated the Damascans because they worshiped Barah, whom the Damascans claimed was the one true Creator of all things. The Damascans followed the teachings of Barah as revealed in Barah’s Book. Ancient Kings and Queens of Damascas had claimed to have been sent messages, what they called revelations, from Barah’s angels or even Barah Himself in some peculiar manifestation. Many of their ancient kings, most recently King Zebuttah, were instructed by Barah to write part of Barah’s Book- so say the people of Damascas.
The Sydonians long considered Barah and Barah’s Book the mere machinations of the Damascans. Sydon worshiped Graybar, the god of their world, who frequently manifested himself before them. Graybar they could see, therefore they could believe in him. Barah had only been speculation, hearsay; no one credible had ever seen him, and nonetheless Barah’s Book and the will of Graybar were not in accord with one another, not at all. Barah in his book claimed to be the one true Creator, but Graybar made that claim for himself. Barah demanded the worship and praise of all people, but Graybar made that demand for himself. Barah said that the people were wicked and disobedient and needed his grace and mercy, but Graybar said that the people were good on their own, so long as they gave their allegiance to him and carried out his purposes.
What was the will of Graybar? Mostly to destroy all enemies, which were those who pledged their allegiance to any King other than King Salazar, Graybar’s anointed one and his chosen representative. If anyone followed any other gods, especially the false god Barah, they were to be destroyed, without showing any mercy. Men, women, children, all were to be killed for worshiping the god Barah. Some were even offered as sacrifices to Graybar in celebration.
In fact, Barah had become such a popular god that Graybar instructed King Salazar to crusade against all nations that called upon Barah’s name and followed the teachings of Barah’s Book. That crusade started with the invasion of the country Damascas 20 years ago. Since then, all the nations surrounding Sydon were brought under Graybar and King Salazar’s sovereignty, accounting for nearly a quarter of the planet Tar-Bar.
Breckinhill was acutely aware of all these things. In fact, those turn of events in the last twenty years led to his drinking, in part at least. And enslavement was what had cast Breckinhill in such a downtrodden spirit this day.
He was mentally sulking over these very things as he walked towards a little nook in a concealed corner of the market. The remnants of a small fire were still smoking. More sticks and kindling were next to the smoking ashes, and there was a brown sleeping sack wrinkled up in the corner as well.
This was where Breckinhill lived, for the last few months at least. He had been leading a nomadic lifestyle until he came to the quaint villages of Shoehorn, which were located in the northwestern quadrant of Damascas.
While a great number of Damascans had been slaughtered during the invasion 20 years ago due to their refusal to repent of their faith in Barah, a remnant were kept alive, mostly to do manual labor or run little shops like those in the market. The Damascans that were kept alive lived mostly in isolated villages; King Salazar considered them unclean and wicked since their ancestors were the ones who held Barah in such high esteem, and whom Barah placed his favor upon. The Damascans also encouraged others to follow Barah as the one true god, a detestable stench in the nostrils of Graybar.
But those days were long gone, for anyone caught speaking positively of Barah, especially proselytizers, would be killed, only after they were tortured and forced to curse the name of Barah.
The owner of the fruit and vegetable stall nearest Breckinhill’s nook was a man named Sterling. Over the past few months, Sterling and Breckinhill had become good friends. Indeed, they would often get drunk together at Old Mason’s. King Salazar allowed the Damascans to build taverns and drink- that meant even what little money they had managed to earn would go right back into the King’s pockets due to unreasonable taxes. Most taverns were owned by Damascans, but King Salazar’s guards were stationed nearby to keep an eye on things.
During the day the watchful eye of the Sydon guards, adorned in their chainmail that was emblazoned with the customary blue serpent emblem, were scattered throughout the market. Fortunately the nook was tucked away, not visible from the main street and covered by the hustle and bustle of customers and sheeted stalls. This allowed Breckinhill to return to the nook just before the market closed for the night and sleep there. If you were caught out of your homes, inns, villages, or wherever you stayed after midnight, you were killed, or worse yet, captured and taken to Sydon, where you would be forced to be a slave.
Breckinhill was now standing in front of the little table where Sterling sold his fruits and vegetables. There were only a few patrons around, and Sterling had apparently stepped away for a second. Breckinhill slid one of the green apples near the corner of the table into his coat pocket as he walked over to his nook.
Once there he again removed his hood from his head and bent down to pull out a pipe and some tobacco that was in the sleeping sack. He fumbled around his coat pocket for a match, but soon realized he had none. He muttered something under his breath as he sat next to the stacked kindling and reached in his pocket for the apple he had stolen.
“You gonna pay for that?” came a voice, startling Breckinhill and causing him to drop the apple. He picked it back up, then looked up and saw Sterling, carrying his remaining wares in a basket to take home.
Breckinhill sat thoughtfully for a moment, then squinted as he looked up at the sky and said, “I’ll trade you this apple for a match.”
“That is my apple! Why would I give you anything for what is already mine? Now give it back or pay for it.”
“You know, I haven’t had anything to eat all day. I could die if you don’t let me eat this apple.”
“Breckinhill man, please, you have more money scattered abroad than I have earned in all my years since the invasion. What was it you said, that you have money buried in nearly every city and in nearly every village in all Damascas? And how exactly did you accumulate such wealth might I ask?” said Sterling. He put down his basket on a cart that he would later hitch his horse to when he traveled home.
Breckinhill jumped up, amazed, and looked towards the nearby stalls. “Dern, you wanna say that a little louder? Maybe next time one of the Imperial guards’ll hear ya!”
“It would serve you right for them to take your money,” said Sterling sharply.
“...And why would you say that?” Breckinhill spoke as if he was genuinely unsure, and irritated.
“Because,” Sterling began, “you go from town to town, village to village, spending all your buried money on getting drunk or picking up whores - you hardly ever eat. And then you take my apples when I am not looking. I have had mercy on you before Breckinhill, but if you are going to eat my goods, you have to pay. I can’t afford to just give you food anymore, especially in light of the fact that you have plenty enough money to cover the cost!”
“Fine. Deride me for finding a little pleasure in life. Rebuke me for disobeying the law of Barah, god of the Damascans!” Breckinhill was looking up at the sky with his hands mockingly exalted toward the heavens.
For a moment Breckinhill’s expression appeared uneasy to Sterling as he slowly lowered his arms and head, but then he quickly recovered his satire and continued.
“Tell me Sterling, what else do we have to live for? What is left that hasn’t been taken from us? The drinking, the sex, it gives me something, though it’s becoming a bit stale too. Only so many flavors of women and so many flavors of ale; after a while they all begin to taste and feel like the same experience. No variety. When you can anticipate the pleasure before you get it, the pleasure’s no longer pleasure when it actually comes.
That’s why I drink you know, it loosens me up a bit, makes me feel good. I’m not always proud of what it brings out of me. Well, some of it I sure am, but lots of it is pretty bad too.” Breckinhill paused for a second and looked at Sterling to make sure he was still listening. “I’m not proud of being a drunkard, you know that Sterling, but I love the feeling of being drunk, and I love how it loosens my tongue, even with the bad stuff that comes out. It’s the only thing left that creates a little excitement, gives me a little hope. Variety. But even that’s becoming stale too.” For a brief moment, Breckinhill looked remorseful.
Sterling had heard this speech a time or two before from Breckinhill. He hesitated, looking around to see if anyone nearby could overhear their conversation, then took a few steps closer to Breckinhill and said in a softened tone, “Well you could at least be a respectable peasant. Collect that money of yours and rent a room, open up a shop-“
“Ah, haaaaha! Open up a shop you say? So what, Salazar can take all my meager earnings?”
“He doesn’t take it all, he takes ei-“
“Eighty percent! And it’s not like you sell much to begin with. What Damascan has money?”
“You, you have money. Which makes me wonder- how’d you get it?”
“Ugh,” grunted Breckinhill. He rolled his eyes and struggled to straighten out his sleeping sack so he could crawl inside it. The shops were now closing and only Breckinhill and Sterling remained at their corner of the market.
“I’ve told you already. I had money before the invasion,” said Breckinhill.
“Money that lasts twenty years?”
“Well if it makes you feel any better, it’s about to run out.”
“But why can’t you tell me what you did, hmm? You must have been some important man, or had some special skill. Were you good with the sword, are you a gifted wizard, were you a sculptor, a great writer, architect, what was it?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“You tell me Breckinhill, or I get one of the guards and you are either dead or a Sydon slave.”
Sterling was facing Breckinhill with one hand on his hip, waiting for a response. Breckinhill had finally managed to get inside his sleeping sack and now struggled to answer Sterling’s question.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity given such dire options, Breckinhill said, “You know, sometimes I’d half like to be a slave in Sydon. Couldn’t be much worse than it is here. How about I give you back your apple and a shiner, you give me just one match, and we’ll call it even?”
Sterling gestured with his hand that was on his hip, moving it out to the side away from his body, palm up in wonder. “It’s a good thing you are well liked, even by the guards at the tavern. They’d probably just let you be anyways, since you’re good for entertainment. Make it 2 shiners and you have a deal.”
“Now you’re talkin’,” said Breckinhill. For the first time all day, he managed to crack a smile as he reached back into his sack. Actually, he was reaching for the inside of a shoe which was inside the sack. He pulled out 2 coins and handed them to Sterling.
“Seems you can pull money out from behind your ears,” said Sterling, looking quizzically at his friend.
“Yea... something like that,” Breckinhill responded with a bit of a smirk.
The exchange was made. Sterling got back his green apple, a bit smudged up, and a little money in exchange for the one match.
Breckinhill took his tobacco and long-stemmed pipe up again, stuffed in the tobacco, and lit it. The aroma was sweet. Tobacco smoke was a rare enough commodity in Damascas, a pipe almost unheard of.
Sterling watched on with amusement as Breckinhill sat there, hood back on, halfway in his sleeping sack, puffing on his pipe and rubbing his belly.
“Getting hungry now I bet,” Sterling said. He threw the apple back to Breckinhill, who caught it with his free hand.
“Keep it, you done got it dirty anyways. Well, I must head home now, the wife will be worried thinkin’ I was shipped off to Sydon, plus she needs these vegetables for cooking.”
“I knew you were the compassionate type,” said Breckinhill through clenched teeth that held his now lit pipe, which dangled from the corner of his mouth and barely jutted out past the side of his hood.
With that, Sterling put his goods in the cart, saddled up his horse and rode off towards his home. It was nearly dark now, and soon all the guards would be off duty, except for the night watchers, who rarely came around the market at night and never entered it. Breckinhill was glad because he would be able to build his fire soon without the guards noticing the smoke and light which would be concealed by the market walls.
He continued to puff on his pipe. It was too early to go to bed, but there wasn’t much else for him to do. After a few more minutes of smoking, the tobacco had run out. Breckinhill looked down at his apple, sitting next to him, and took a few bites out of it. He decided to lie down on his side and sleep a bit. He shut his eyes and tried to relax, but he was restless.
Unable to find comfort, Breckinhill removed his hood and ran his hand through his long, greasy black hair, then scratched his bearded chin. Given the lack of opportunity to bathe regularly, most Damascan men kept their hair to a minimum, but not Breckinhill. This further added to his persona at Old Mason’s. In fact, nobody could ever remember seeing Breckinhill not bearded or with long hair. At first this was peculiar, but over the last few months people had grown accustomed to it. For Breckinhill, it had been normal for a long time.
“Twenty years. Twenty years since I’ve been clean shaven and had my real hair,” he muttered to himself with his eyes still closed.
“Why do you let me live? What’s left for me? Nothing... nothing good.” Breckinhill was speaking but no one was around.
Then he sat up and yanked off his oily wig. He laid it next to the sleeping sack, revealing his fully shaved head. He made the wig himself; it was the hair of a dead peasant girl he had found on one of the roads between towns.
Periodically he would switch wigs. He had collected several at this point from various people, all dead, all girls or women that he came across as he went from place to place. Since he had been in the Shoehorn area the last few months, he had to keep wearing the same wig, and by now it was getting very dirty. He had been fortunate nobody had pulled it off or that it had fallen off during one of his bar fights. He kept it pasted down to his bald head with sap because it was important, so he thought, to keep his identity hidden.
“Oh, what does it matter! It’s been twenty years. If they recognize me now, good for them!” said Breckinhill aloud while wriggling out of his sleeping sack and rising to his feet.
He grabbed all five of his wigs and stuffed them into his front coat pockets. No one was left in the market, so he cut through the stalls to get to the dirt strip quickly. He headed towards the south exit, the same direction he entered the market from earlier.
Once outside the market, he followed along a fence far beyond its end where there was neither road nor dirt path. The terrain dropped off a bit initially, then was flat and spacious, eventually leading to a lightly wooded area and a brook about five miles down.
Breckinhill was certain he was out of anyone’s site, so he removed his hood and started jogging towards the woods. Even if he ran it would still take him at least forty minutes to reach the brook, although the wood itself was only about a ten minute jog away.
Though it was getting quite cold as fall wore on, about once or twice a week Breckinhill would go down to the brook after dark and bathe. He managed to find a bit of lye soap that a merchant had left in an empty stall and was using it to clean himself.
Actually, Breckinhill rather enjoyed the jog. It was one way to get a bit of exercise and sweaty without having to do payless physical labor at the hands of King Salazar’s soldiers. The pay here was a shower. Breckinhill was running very determinedly, and even sprinted stretches of the run, something he never did.
The red and orange foliage of the forest around him was a visual escape from the drab and colorless markets and villages. Autumn leaves fell to the ground in the night that was unusually brightened by the full moon, adding to the pile that had already collected on the twisting path. Only in a few places did Breckinhill have to break stride in order to dodge a low-lying tree that had fallen across the trail, or to negotiate some roots or briars that had grown up on the rarely traveled route.
He arrived at the brook in thirty minutes, exhausted and sweaty; he collapsed on the ground, lying flat on his back as his chest and stomach heaved in and out with each deep breath that was sucked in.
After a few minutes the heavy breathing subsided. Breckinhill closed his eyes and laid there with a big, stupid grin on his face. The air on his bald head felt amazing, something he rarely had the privilege to experience. Even his hunger pains went away momentarily.
Soon, though, Breckinhill felt the itch of his dirty clothes. He stood up and removed them, letting himself into the cold water and bathing as fast as he could. The wind was warded off by the surrounding woods, which helped take off the biting edge of the chilled water, but only a little.
“You cause the fresh air to fall on the just and the unjust...” he said aloud as he was finishing up and putting his clothes back on.
Once dressed, Breckinhill sat down and reached into his coat pocket. He pulled out a tattered old book. It was hardly a book- the cover was ripped off, the back was ripped off, what was left of the spine was unreadable, and its pages were dirty and stained. The print was very small, the whole book itself was probably three inches wide and four inches long, and only about half an inch thick.
Breckinhill turned somewhere towards the back of it, and by the light of the moon began reading. It was difficult reading in such conditions, but these were the only opportunities he had. Once a week he chanced it, but even in the depths of the forest he felt it was risky. Sometimes, he would read for just a minute, then throw the book down in disgust- a few times he considered casting it into the brook. Other times, he would read for an hour, or even several hours, and suddenly begin to weep, or cry, or even scream.
Tonight, Breckinhill was reading a passage he so often read. In fact, it was the passage he always began with. It was the passage that sometimes caused him to slam the book down, and it was the passage that sometimes moved him to tears and encouraged him to continue reading for hours. The passage said:
“The sons of foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in My wrath I struck you, but in My favor I have had mercy on you. Therefore your gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day or night, that men may bring to you the wealth of their land, and their kings in procession.
For the nation and kingdom which will not serve you shall perish, and those nations shall be utterly ruined.”
This is where, depending on how Breckinhill interpreted the passage, he either slammed the book closed, or continued reading for hours, being moved to tears and filled with hope. Despite the dismal start to the day, Breckinhill was now feeling hopeful, and read with gladness.
He continued reading the following passages, and after about an hour, with tears in his eyes, he closed the book and stood up. He was getting ready to head back to his nook when a familiar voice came from behind him.
“Breckinhill, tell me who you are, or I’ll kill you.”
It was Sterling, jabbing the head of an enchanter’s staff into the back of Breckinhill’s neck.