The fire in the hearth did little to heat the room, but the smell of burning pine helped to cover the sour odor of unclean bodies and ancient puke. The floorboards creaked under my feet as I ventured farther into the gloom, but no one paid me any notice.
Men sat, men drank, men played cards. These were men who won their daily bread fighting the mountain, attacking the living stone and the wealth it concealed. There was a grey cast to the men to match the tables, their warped and knotted hands mirroring the twists and knots of the boards. They were strong men, and hard, but the mountain was winning. They played their games of chance listlessly, with a minimum of conversation, rarely even looking at one another.
I sat at the end of one bench, away from anyone else. I wasn’t ready to be social yet; that would come later, after the proper amount of lubrication. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. It felt like I’d been holding it for weeks. Here, in the quiet desperation of a working-man tavern, I was as close to home as I can come anymore.
“What you want, mlord?” The serving girl was fourteen years old at most, her skinny limbs long for her torso, her breasts only just starting to bud under her shift. Her dark, short-cropped hair showed a desire to wave.
“I’m no lord,” I said.
She glared at me through narrowed eyes. I noticed that one was puffy and slightly discolored. “You got all your fuckin’ teeth?”
I smiled. “Yes.”
“Then you’re a fuckin’ lord. What you want?”
“You have wine?”
“Oh, fuck, wine,” she said. “Yeah, we got fuckin’ wine, m’fuckin’ Lord.”
“Then bring me some, before the Seven Gods of the Sky finish their circle-jerk and drown the world in their spooge.”
The girl hesitated, then smiled. “All right,” she said, and disappeared through the opening to the kitchen.
She was back in only a moment with a mug filled with sour red wine. I took a long sip while she stood at my elbow, and I felt the glow begin in my belly. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Elena,” she said.
“Elena. I admire your unrestrained use of our language.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“But you’re limiting yourself. You haven’t said ‘dick’ or ‘balls’ or even ‘twat’ yet.”
“Go lick your balls, you fucking twat,” she said, and turned away to serve other patrons. Smiling. In a strange town, in an unknown public house, the best friend you can make is the one who serves the alcohol. The rest will follow. And it is always refreshing to meet someone who appreciates the power of language. I took another healthy draught. Already the wine was tasting better. Things were looking up in Mountain Forge.
* * *
Katherine may have thought she was being subtle when she invaded our little haven, but every eye in the room turned to her when she came through the door. I was still seated in the same place, but now I was with friends, though we held our cards close to our chests.
Her nostrils flared as she took in the ambience, then she spotted me. I set my cards down as she approached. “Martin, I was hoping we could talk.”
Elena arrived with the wine pitcher. I’d lost count of how many I’d had, but it hardly mattered. “Who the fuck is this twat?” she asked me. Elena was going to be a project, I mused, but the kid had a gift, there was no denying that.
“Mind your manners, girl,” Katherine growled.
For a moment Elena seemed uncertain, hearing the note of high-born command in Kat’s voice. A note I find distasteful, even among assassins and fugitives. Instinctively I came to the defense of my young friend. “This twat,” I said, “was just leaving.” I took another solid gulp of wine and I was sure I had done the right thing.
Katherine looked like she had been punched in the face, but the shock quickly gave way to a hard, quiet sort of anger. “I’ll talk to you later,” she said, “when you’re sober.”
I looked a Elena. “Let’s make sure that never happens,” I said. The girl smiled, her grin toothy.
Katherine set her jaw, turned, and left. The inevitable conclusion to our acquaintance. I knew Elena would not leave me, though. Not until my money ran out. She would even pretend to like me, an illusion of friendship we both would maintain, for our individual reasons.
“There’s a special hell just for her,” Elena said as she refilled my mug. I smiled, but it was bittersweet. It was Elena’s first creative curse, which was worthy of celebration, but it was a disturbingly accurate one. Katherine was in her own hell. I thought of chasing her down and listening to what she had wanted to say to me, but it was my turn to play a card.