I believe I posted chapter 1 a long time ago as well. This, however, is the recently revised, and hopefully much improved, version (though it is still far from its final form). Hope you enjoy and your interest is piqued.
Copyright © 2011 by Thomas Fletcher Booher
The tavern was old, smelling faintly of manure and smoke from the villager’s shoes and pipes. Grime and dirt salted the stone floor, and the dim candle light revealed walls stained with ale. A cloaked, hooded man huddled against the corner wall, one leg extended, the other bent. He rested a stein of ale on top of the bent knee, uncomfortably bracing his weight with the free hand, eyes fixed on the golden liquid in front of his concealed 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 into a rageful fit, cursing and spitting at others who had done him no wrong. This would, on rare occasions, cause a fight to break out, concluding with a good jostling for the hooded man by several a tad 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 far too much—that being the case every time he visited Old Mason’s. Nobody believed the stories, but they were good fun. He claimed of once being a very important person, bragging of his kindness and generosity toward 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 been crushed but not quite killed. Dragged outside the city, he had been beaten and left for dead by 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.
It seems even this was not the end of the story, but by the time the man sitting in the corner reached this part of his tale, his listeners began chortling so loudly he was too upset to continue (the idea of the drunken hooded man having a rich father who owned a castle being too tall a tale even for them). Further incensed, the man would slam his ale on the table, toss his hood over his head, and stagger out of the tavern to the tune of uproarious 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 toward 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 present posture proved unfamiliar. Never had they seen him so withdrawn from the rest in the pub, sitting all alone in the corner. Sometimes he would keep to himself, but once he was drunk he grew angry, talkative and reminiscent, sarcastic and prone to tell raunchy, witty stories, or some fascinating combination of the three.
As soon as he walked in today, however, he went to the counter, grabbed a stein of ale, and proceeded directly to the corner where he was now sitting. He would drink periodically from his cup, yet more slowly than usual, especially if one’s intention was getting drunk. Each time his cup ran out he would peer inside to be certain it was drained, then quite deliberately rise from the floor and head to the bartender for another round, always keeping his hood on and head down.
Thus was his pattern for several hours, and now he had reached the end of his fifth mug.
“Watch ‘im boys, looks like he’s stirring. Glass must be empty, and he’s comin’ back for more,” said one of the regulars with a bit of a snort. He sat at the bar, flanked by two other men.
“Poor feller, looks like he’s lost joy in bein’ drunk. Ain’t much left in life fer a drunkard a’ that point is thar?” said another.
As anticipated, the man sitting in the corner examined the inside of his cup, then sighed as he slowly rose to his feet, walking sedately in the direction of the bartender. About halfway he stopped harshly, with a bit of a stomp, stirring dust from the floor and disturbing the onlookers. With head hung toward the floor he carefully reached and removed his hood, revealing a flushed, dusty white face and long, greasy hair that was matted and clumped from being stuffed inside.
Then he raised his head and turned impassively to the men at the bar, who continued to watch him warily. The one closest to the hooded man rose to his feet, while the two behind him leaned back and prepared to rise as well. The greasy-haired man had been known to fight, but today he was acting so strangely they weren’t sure what to expect.
The hooded man stared at the men near the bar for a few tense moments, then released his gaze without word or 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 exited.
“Breckinhill! Just where do you think you’re going with my mug?”
Breckinhill halted, much like he did moments before, and turned to face the tavernmaster. He stood halfway out the tavern door, his large frame blocking the entranceway as the low hanging sun shone in from behind his shoulders, casting a long shadow that reached nearly to where the tavernmaster now stood.
Breckinhill’s lips quivered, but no sound came forth. Then, after a moment’s pause, he cracked his mug on a barrel next to the door, flipped his hood on, and tromped out.
The tavernmaster turned to the three men at the bar and sighed. “Ah, Breckinhill, he is a character ain’t he? Never seen ‘im moping ‘round like this though. Hope he makes it to where he’s goin’ by tomorrow.”
The cool fall air was truly invigorating compared to the musty tavern, but Breckinhill’s features gave no notice. His demeanor and posture stayed the same. His shoulders were slumped forward slightly, and he continued hanging his head low under his hood. With a sigh, he plodded down the little dirt street towards the market which lay nearly a quarter mile away.
A breeze picked up, compelling Breckinhill to tuck his threadbare tunic beneath his cloak into his tattered pants and wrap the cloak around his body. The sun had nearly set and it was getting quite dark, signifying the market’s time to close. Few others passed by, and those that did pass Breckinhill did not acknowledge.
The market itself was relatively small, only a handful of wares and goods offered 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, ever since King Salazar of the northern bordering country Sydon sacked Damascas twenty years earlier, people had little money, and even less freedom.
While a great number of Damascans had been slaughtered during the invasion for their refusal to renounce faith in Barah, a remnant were kept alive, mostly to do manual labor or run little shops like those in the market. These Damascans lived in isolated villages; King Salazar considered them wicked, unclean since their ancestors held Barah in such high esteem and were Barah’s specially chosen people. The Damascans also encouraged others to follow Barah as the one true god, a despicable act in the eyes of Graybar, the god of Sydon. But those days were long gone, for anyone caught speaking positively of Barah, especially proselytizers, would be killed- after they were tortured and commanded to curse the name of Barah.
Breckinhill was acutely aware of these things, musing them over as he walked toward a little nook in a concealed corner of the market. Sticks and kindling lay next to a small fire, of which the remnants still smoldered. A brown sleeping sack also lay wrinkled on the ground, pressed against the stone wall.
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, located in the northwestern quadrant of Damascas.
Breckinhill was now standing in front of the little fruit and vegetable stall next to the nook. There were no patrons, and apparently the owner had stepped away. Breckinhill surreptitiously slid one of the green apples near the corner of the table into his coat pocket as he walked over to the nook. He had to be careful- most taverns were owned by Damascans, but King Salazar’s guards were stationed nearby to keep an eye on things and collect tolls.
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, encroaching darkness, and sheeted stalls. This allowed Breckinhill to return to the nook just before the market closed for the night and sleep there.
Breckinhill removed his hood 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, then muttered something under his breath, realizing he had none. Flustered, he sat down next to the kindling and retrieved the stolen apple
“Gonna pay for that?” came a sharp voice. Breckinhill dropped the apple in surprise, and it rolled toward the side path. He picked it up, then straightened and saw the owner of the fruit and vegetable stall carrying his remaining wares in a basket.
“I’ll trade you this apple for a match,” Breckinhill said thoughtfully, squinting as he tried to look at the man who stood in front of the setting sun. The vendor had a firm jaw, big hands with thick fingers, was clean shaven and bald. He wore a farmer’s hat and typical peasant garb. The last hints of youthfulness remained etched on his sullen face.
“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, please friend, 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, hmm?” the man placed his basket on a cart that he would later hitch his horse to when he traveled home.
Breckinhill jumped in amazement and looked toward the nearby stalls. “Dern Sterling, 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,” Sterling said sharply.
“...And why would you say that?” Breckinhill spoke unsurely, his voiced tinged with irritation.
“Because,” Sterling began, “you go from town to town, village to village, spending all your buried money on getting drunk or picking up wenches - 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 must 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, his hands mockingly exalted toward the heavens.
For a moment Breckinhill’s expression seemed uneasy to Sterling, but then Breckinhill lowered his arms and head and his features returned to normal.
, 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. Sterling
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 much of it is pretty awful too.” Breckinhill paused and looked at
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.” Dejected, Breckinhill nearly looked remorseful. “But it wasn’t always this way…” Sterling
Sterling had heard this speech a time or two before. 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 that corner of the market.
“I’ve told you already. I had money before the invasion,” said Breckinhill dismissively.
“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, an orator, a great writer, architect, what was it?”
“It’s none of your business,” Breckinhill replied coldly.
“You tell me Breckinhill, or I’ll get one of the guards and let them know you’ve been hiding out here past curfew.”
Sterling stood defiantly, one big hand on his hip, waiting for a response. Breckinhill had finally managed to maneuver inside his sleeping sack and now struggled to answer Sterling’s question.
At length, Breckinhill said with mirth, “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 shook his head and raised his palms out and toward the heavens in wonderment. “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 two 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 two coins and handed them to
“Seems you can pull money out from behind your ears,” said
, looking quizzically at his friend. Sterling
“Yeah... something like that,” Breckinhill responded with a bit of a smirk.
The exchange was made. Sterling recovered 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.
“Getting hungry now I bet,”
said. He threw the apple back to Breckinhill, who caught it with his free hand. Sterling
“Keep it, you 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 pipe. It dangled loosely from the corner of his mouth, barely jutting out past the brim of his hood.
With that, Sterling loaded his goods in the cart, mounted his horse, and rode off toward 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 and never entered it. Breckinhill was glad because he would be able to build his fire without the guards noticing the smoke and light which the market walls would conceal.
Breckinhill continued to puff on his pipe. It was too early to go to bed, but there wasn’t much else he could do. After a few more minutes of smoking, the tobacco had run out. He picked up his apple, which lay next to him, and took a few bites out of it. Then he decided to lie down on his side and sleep. He shut his eyes and tried to relax, but 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 spoke aloud but no one was around.
Then he sat up and yanked off his oily wig, tossing 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 discarded in a ditch between towns.
Periodically he would switch wigs. He had collected several at this point from various corpses, all girls or women that he uncovered as he traversed 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!” Breckinhill whispered 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 remained in the market, so he cut through the stalls to get to the dirt strip quickly. He headed for the south exit, the same direction he entered the market earlier.
Once outside the market, he followed along a fence far beyond its edge where there was neither road nor dirt path. The terrain dropped off a bit initially, then flattened and became spacious, eventually leading to a lightly wooded area and brook about five miles down.
Breckinhill was certain he was out of anyone’s site, so he removed his hood and started jogging toward the woods. Even if he ran it would still take him forty minutes to reach the brook, although the wood’s beginning was only about a ten minute jog away.
Despite the fact 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 without having to do wageless physical labor under the supervision of King Salazar’s men. 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, 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 upon the rarely traveled route.
He arrived at the brook in thirty minutes, exhausted and sweaty; collapsing on the ground, he lie flat on his back as his chest and stomach heaved violently with each deep breath he sucked in.
After a few minutes he recovered his breath. Breckinhill closed his eyes. A big, stupid grin emerged across his face. The air on his bald head felt remarkable, something he rarely had the privilege to experience. Even his hunger pains went away.
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 surrounding woods warded the wind, which helped take off the biting edge of the chilled water, but only a smidgeon.
“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 and back were ripped off, what was left of the spine was unreadable, and its pages were smudged and stained. The print was small, the whole book itself probably three inches wide and four inches long, and only about half an inch thick.
Breckinhill turned somewhere toward the back of it, and by the light of the moon began reading. It was difficult deciphering the words 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 softly, or sob roughly, or wail loudly.
Tonight, Breckinhill was reading his favorite passage. In fact, it was the passage he always began with. The passage read:
“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.”
Breckinhill’s reaction depended on how he interpreted the passage. Despite the dismal start to the day, Breckinhill was now feeling hopeful, and read on with gladness.
He continued reading the following passages, and after about an hour, with tears in his eyes, he closed the book and stood. He was getting ready to head back to his nook when a familiar voice came from behind.
“Breckinhill, tell me who you are, or I’ll kill you.”
It was Sterling, jabbing the head of a glowing enchanter’s staff into the back of Breckinhill’s neck.