The air was thick and humid at the inn tonight. Stale ale and staler patrons left the tavern swimming in stench.
As much as he’d prefer to be able to breathe out in the cool summer breeze, no one was chugging alcohol under the stars.
He’d opted to leave all his messenger paraphernalia behind this time. He’d been tracking his prey for the better half of a week now, and the last thing he wanted was attention as he got in to get a closer look. He’d learned the hard way that nothing garnered a crowd like an official guild cloak pin and messenger bag. Everyone wanted to know if your messages were for them.
No, tonight he was a simple traveler, thin and wiry and a bit haggard from his travels—just another patron supping and sipping at the tavern bar. Years of observation and practice made it rather easy to blend in with a crowd.
Well, there were still some practices even he wouldn’t care to stoop to. He noted, out of the corner of his eye, that he was one of the few not to hassle the harried serving girls. The poor things were frantically scurrying from table to table, taking orders and trying not to get too close to drunk fingers. He clapped his hand around his mug, swirling the golden brew within. Had to do something quick to keep himself distracted from the cat-calls.
You’ve got bigger skulls to crack later, Zaelor. Don’t spoil it all now.
He took another mock swig at the brew he’d actually hardly drunk. No room for error tonight, after all. The mug, like most everything else about this harmless traveler, was just for show.
Although it didn’t take much effort to look as exhausted as he felt. With a sigh, he rubbed his chin, hearing the familiar scrape of leather glove against his golden-brown stubble.
Got to find a new occupation, he thought to himself, concealing a grim smile.
Some of the cat-callers had apparently become bored of trying to nab their limber quarry. The traveler barely lifted his head as a group of four dark-cloaked brutes stalked toward the bar.
“All’s Ah’m sayin’ is, it’s bloody well time we go’ a job,” grumbled a husky baritone, continuing a conversation he and his gang had apparently been engaged in—when they weren’t trying to coax the serving-girls closer with their beer breath. “Ah was told we’d be rollin’ in riches n’ fun. ‘Aven’t ‘ad a fair share o’ neither in a dirty long while.”
There were a couple of half-hearted agreements between two of Baritone’s companions, but the third just chuckled icily. Baritone was easily the largest of the four black-cloaks, and he looked very much like a bear: all muscle and shoulders and fur. But it was fairly clear that of the four, the tall but thin man, Ice, was in charge. His gait was firm, confident in an intellectual way that the others’ were not. As if that weren’t enough, the red rim on his black cloak further differentiated him from his companions.
The group of four approached the bar. There was currently one other patron seated at the bar, now between Zaelor and the dark-cloaked band. But the patron was inconveniently taking up one of a set of what would be four empty stools at the bar.
Baritone Bear gave the patron a sneer as he pointed to his stool. “We’re settin’ here.” It was all he had to growl before the hapless patron slipped off the stool and scampered to a more remote corner of the tavern.
The four black-cloaks took a seat. The one sitting to Zaelor’s left didn’t even acknowledge him. He turned his back to Zaelor so he could better view the exchange between Bear and Ice.
“And you’ll do well t’ thank the Captain for it once we return,” Ice coolly replied to Baritone’s bellows.
“Pah.” Baritone clearly wasn’t convinced. “Ah’ll thank ‘im when Ah get what was promised me. Ah mean, what sort o’ job is this? Scout a coupla ruins…”
“And w-why now?” the dark-cloak next to Zaelor whispered—barely audible over the hum of the bar, if he hadn’t been seated so close. “I mean, nobody’s been sent there in ages…”
“Ehhhh? ‘E’s scared o’ th’ ghosties, is ‘e!” Baritone was more than eager to guffaw at his companion’s expense.
“Sh-shut it! You’re all scared of the D—!”
It was unfortunate that the only silent member of their band had chosen to sit beside Baritone, because Ice suddenly shifted in his seat, knocking their two heads together with a dull thump. The two injured cloaks howled and began nursing their wounds.
“You all had better shut it,” Ice hissed, apparently more than finished with his lackeys’ behavior. “or I’m the only one who’s going to be coming back to report to the Captain.”
It was enough to shut even Baritone up for the rest of the night. They lounged at the bar the rest of the night, boots on the counter, barking at the serving-girls and the bar-keep, slurping their food and drink.
It was a good deal later that Baritone finally passed out from all the alcohol. The other three were dozing and picking at the chicken bones still on their plates. None of them noticed the other patrons paying and leaving for the night.
* * *
Maybe I could be a florist, Zaelor thought as he left the inn and ducked into the underbrush out back. He rummaged around in the bushes, dusting away a thick carpet of leaves to expose a small, hand-dug divot in the dirt. His messenger bag and pin sat neatly atop the pile of his left-behind belongings. He grabbed those first.
...But then I'd miss the exceptional dinner talk.He dug out the last of his belongings from the hole and slung them over his shoulder: his unstrung bow and a quiver of black-fletched arrows.
Nothing but a hunter's life for me.
His piercing brown eyes glinted in the darkness as he slipped between the trees, disappearing into the night.
[Cut scene from The Victor's Blade; all content subject to change.]
I apologize in advance if you see something you like that doesn't make it in the final book. I try to post the most up-to-date excerpts I can, but keep in mind, we're working with a WIP. Never know what that Butterfly Effect will change!
But there's always been something I've loved about starting Zaelor off at an inn. Reminds me of a certain Strider I adore. He's a bit of a mystery man, isn't he? Let me know what you think of him down in the comments.
From Him, To Him