This is isn’t exactly what I wrote that day so long ago, but it’s reasonably close. I got it from a file dated March of 2004, which is when I had a big first draft and was about to do some serious chopping. The writing here is certainly awkward enough to be a first draft. This scene changed a lot over the years, before meeting its demise this summer. At least, the scene this had become met its demise. After years of revising, it’s interesting to look back on this and see that there are some good things that got lost along the way. There are also some things about this that I am not at all sad to be rid of.
I watched other patrons come and go as I nursed my beer. You’ve seen a hundred Taverns and pubs like the Crossroads Inn. It was a large room, with a bar at one end, a fireplace at the other, tables in between. Most of the smaller tables were occupied, and one of the two long tables was filled with a boisterous group of mercenaries who were there for the same reason I was. Looking for work.
It was a chilly day; Winter was reminding us that she was waiting for us. There was only one way to avoid her icy breath, and I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. So I sat in a corner away from the heat of the merry fire and people that enjoyed it. “Bring it on, Winter,” I mumbled into my beer. “You haven’t killed me yet.” She had tried, and even come close, but I was still there, with all my fingers and toes, and a room to stay in until my money ran out. Tomorrow.
“Did you say something?” asked the serving girl as she passed my table, laden with crock mugs for the mercanaries.
“Just talking to the Universe,” I said, “but it’s not listening.”
She laughed prettily even though she didn’t understand and went off to flirt with other patrons. Her hips swayed even more as she approached the long table with her cargo of ale. I heard her laugh clearly across the room, ringing high over the rest of the conversation.
The name of the Crossroads Inn is descriptive if not particularly creative. The town of Rinth sits at the intersection of two important trade roads, and prospers by catering to the merchants passing through. There were several inns in town, but this was the favorite among soldiers and free lances, so it was the place merchants came when they were looking for a little extra muscle as they continued east into more dangerous territory. It was also the place where they would drop off unneeded muscle as they headed West. The area to the east was lawless not because neither Landreth or Garadel claimed it, but because both did. Most of the bandits were technically in the employ of one state or the other, although they rarely seemed ineterested in advancing anyone’s interests but their own. They were little more than bandits and petty warlords.
Some merchants specialized in the road east from Rinth that eventually reached Landreth. Some had even made special tarriff arrangements with the bandits. In the end, however, no matter who you paid, you had better be ready to defend your cargo.
Some mercanaries made a living off that road, and had arrangements of their own, but I wasn’t so much a specialist myself. I had traveled that road often enough, but I couldn’t keep doing the same thing for very long. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and I hadn’t been getting much work lately.
There were some merchants at the smaller tables. One group had obviously just come from the East; they were drinking heavily and I watched as the worry of the journey was lifted from their shoulders. They had made it. They had taken a risk and now they would profit handsomely. The local working girls had picked up on their mood and were vying for their attantion. No one that visited the Crossroads Inn and had a little coin would sleep alone if he didn’t want to.
Most of the merchants that traveled the east road were younger, trying to establish themselves and build a reputation. Very few older men took that risk. Traders either died young on the East road or they made their money and moved on to safer, but more competitive, routes.
That made it more difficult for me to get work here. I depended on regulars, merchants who knew me and knew what I could do. Getting a new client was the most difficult part of my profession. Killing I could do, dying I was prepared to do, but approaching a man and asking for work was almost impossible for me. I’m not that much to look at, really, smaller than most other hired swords, with a baby face that makes me look like a boy barely past puberty. People who know me, people who have fought on battlefields and in the caves at Algarth with me, know that I am a capable soldier, and more honest than many. Strangers usually just laugh. I’m not much of a salesman – not much of a talker, really. Sometimes I would try to tell them about my military record, but it would just add to the merriment.
There were no friends or acquantances here tonight, only strangers. Usually in a group of mercanaries the size of the one at the long table I would be able to recognize someone. I recognozed one of the Westbound merchants, but he would be reducing his payroll now that he was through the danger. I knew I should talk to him anyway, just to renew the relationship, but I’m not much at small talk. I looked over the other merchants, trying to spot the one who would need more muscle and would not laugh in my face.
I had one picked out, and was rehearsing my sales pitch, when he got up and went upstairs. I started over. No one looked like a very good prospect. Still, people were coming and going all the time. Maybe another caravan would come in before my money ran out. I’ve been out of money plenty of times, and I am quite capable of living off the land, but when you’re broke it just shows. People prefer to hire people who look successful.
Eventually, as it became obvious which of the prostitutes were going to win the affection – and money – of the merchants, the other working girls began to scout around the rest of the room. Finally one of them decided to give me a try. She sashayed over to my table and I had to admit to myself that she was very pretty. Her shirt – blouse, or whatever they’re called – was cut very low, revealing ample cleavage beneath. Her skirt had a slit cut far up the side, revealing at least one shapely leg.
“Would you like some company for the evening?” she asked sweetly.
“I’m not your type,” I said, trying with only limited success to make it sound like a growl.
“Don’t be silly, kid. Everyone needs a little company now and then.”
For a moment I was tempted. It sounded nice, someone to lie with in the darkness, talking about nothing much in particular, sharing body heat as the night got colder. Maybe even laughing at some little joke that wasn’t really that funny. To not be alone. I had been alone for so long now I wondered if I was even capable of any form of intimacy. I felt a hollowness in my chest that I had almost forgotten. The place where most people have a heart. I had something else there instead. A monster. Perhaps for one night, though, I could pretend.
The monster moved inside me and I came to my senses. “I’m the type with no money,” I said.
The look in her eye said that I had cut her more deeply than I had intended. She had offered comfort, and I had called her a whore. “That’s not always what I want.” She pulled herself together and returned to the warmer end of the hall.
What if I had said yes? What if I had let down my guard for one night and gone with her? What if I hadn’t been sitting there when the stranger came in, looking for someone to do a job for him? But the man was looking for me, and the monster saw to it that he found me. I was no more able to accept the comfort of that girl than I was able to end my own life.
The monster wasn’t real in the sense that it was a separate creature that lived inside me, although most of the time it felt that way. It’s just a name I gave to a part of me that seemed to have its own life. It certainly had its own goals, and I suspected that my survival was not one of them. We didn’t talk much.
I didn’t pay very much attention to the stranger at first; he wasn’t wearing the outward signs of wealth that traders seem to be so fond of, and he didn’t look like any sort of hired sword. He paused at the door, surveying the room, and, walking very slowly, he eased himself into a rough-hewn chair in the no-mans-land between the rest of the patrons and me. A traveler, weary from the road. No doubt his companions were nearby, and would be joining him soon.
Where he sat, I could not help but look at him further, and the more I looked at him, the more curious I became. Although he was clearly weary from the road, he held himself erect. There was discipline in his posture, and pride. His clothes, too, though simple, were tailored to him and made of sturdy but soft material. Beneath a layer of dust his boots gleamed with fresh polish. The hilt of his sword was finely worked and well-worn.
I realized that he was looking at me, appraising me as I was appraising him. He smiled slightly. “May I offer you a drink?” he asked.
I wasn’t working, so I decided that another couldn’t hurt. I don’t drink when I’m on a payroll, but between jobs I sometimes allow myself to dull my senses a little. Every once in a while I allow myself to dull my senses a lot, a cowardly attempt at oblivion, but they always come back. I had promised the owner of the tavern that I wouldn’t start a fight tonight – this was not my first time in Rinth and tavern owners have better memories than my employers – so there was really nothing to lose.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked after he had ordered our drinks.
“Be my guest,” I said.
He pulled himself up slowly, but with a grace that spoke of training. Either dance lessons at court or combat training. Both, I decided. I shifted my chair to allow him an equal share of space at the table. He stood over me, his dark clothing making him look even taller than he actually was, which was pretty tall to start with. He smelled like horse and money. “My name is Smith,” he said, offering his hand.
I took his hand and shook it, pumping twice firmly, not squeezing so hard it looked like I was trying to prove something. “Hunter,” I said.
“Hunter? Is that the name your mother gave you?”
“That would be a remarkable coincidence,” I said.
He laughed, and sat with a sigh.
“Long road?” I asked.
“You have no idea. Traveling like this always takes it out of me. But I have been in a hurry.”
The serving girl arrived with our drinks. When she set them down the table rocked, causing some of the dark liquid to slosh onto the table and onto me. She didn’t notice; she was flirting with my guest, giving him an eyeful as she bent over to set down the mugs and brushing against him quite unnecessarily as she turned to leave. She could smell the money as well. I was a little jealous of the attention, despite myself.
Smith didn’t seem to notice her at all. Holding his mug so that nothing would drip on his clothes, he sampled the beer. “I’ve had better,” he said with a slight grimace. I had had better ale as well, but not here. There didn’t seem to be anything to be gained by belaboring the point, so I sipped my beer, letting it drip where it might.
“Why do you call youself Hunter?” he asked.
“It’s left over from my army days. You get all sorts of names in the army.”
“What were you called before that?”
I shrugged. “Thomas, usually.”
“But now you’re Hunter.”
“You know how to use that?” he looked meaningfully at my sword.
I nodded. “And I know how not to.”
Smith raised one eyebrow. I had always wanted to be able to do that. I resisted the urge to try again to do it right then. He looked around the bar. “Who do you think the most dangerous person in this place is right now?”
He was testing me, which would have been annoying except that it probably meant he had work of some sort to offer. “Dangerous to your money bag, that little hooker over there with the light fingers. Dangerous to your health, probably the cook in back. But dangerous overall…” I surveyed the other patrons. Some of them looked like they could be trouble, but as I sized them all up the monster whispered in my ear and I knew it was right. “…you.” I said.
This time his smile revealed a neat row of narrow, white teeth. A wolf’s smile. “You could be right. I need someone to do a job for me. Are you interested?”
“That depends on the job, but probably, yes.”
“I have a mesage to deliver to the palace in Garadel. The messenger requires a bodyguard. Discretion is very important.”
I raised my eyebrows. Garadel was the seat of the largest and arguably most powerful kingdom in the world. A delivery to the palace implied that this was royal business. I wondered what rank Smith held in the royal household.
“Where is this messenger now?”
“We can discuss the particulars after you are in my employ.”
“Why me?” I asked. Usually for a bodyguard you hire the biggest, ugliest man you can find. More often than not, his presence alone would prevent trouble. I was better in situations where the fight was already a given.
“As I said, discretion is very important. If the bodyguard looks like a bodyguard, then everyone will know that he is protecting something. What I need is someone who can protect without appearing to be a protector. There is another thing as well. I believe that I am a good judge of a man. Usually when I meet someone I can tell right away what their character is. I believe that you would never betray an employer. Am I right?”
I nodded. “Yes.” I was compelled to add, “as long as he doesn’t betray me.”
He smiled, congratulating himself on his perception more than appreciating me. He put a coin on the table. “This is for the next hour of your time. Do you accept?”
I didn’t even look at the coin. It didn’t matter what it was if it allowed him to describe the job. “Sure,” I said.
“What I am about to tell you is secret. You are not to tell anyone about it, even after our current contract expires. Do you understand?”
I chose not to be insulted. If the guy needed to state it formally, he could knock himself out. “I understand,” I said.
“The messenger will be prepared to leave from Monkham the day after tomorrow. You are to be there before nightfall the day before.”
Monkham lay to the south, straight down the road. I was between mounts at that time, and Monkham was long way to go on foot in one day. At least I would have a night to rest before the journey started. It would take about two weeks to get from there to Garadel by horse, depending on how fast the messenger could move. “Is anyone likely to cause trouble?”
He nodded. “If certain people find out about the message, they will try to stop it. I have lost messengers in the past.”
And bodyguards, I assumed. I sized him up, and made a guess at what he would be willing to pay. “Thirty crowns,” I said.
He smiled again. “Ten,” he said, “and you can keep the horse.”
Depending on the horse, that would be a fair price. Depending on the horse. “Twenty and the horse,” I said.
“Fifteen,” Simth said, “and you will like the horse.”
I hadn’t had fifteen crowns jangling in my pocket in a long time. It was a lot of money to make for two weeks work; in the army I had earned less than that in two years. I could stretch that kind of money over months, and then I could sell the horse. That would easily get me through the winter, and well into summer beyond. “All right,” I said.
“Good.” He gestured to the coin on the table. It was a gold crown. A lot of money. This had been the most lucrative hour of my life. He handed me another. The way he was throwing money around, I wondered why he had bothered haggling. Probably just for the fun of it.
“Use this to pay for our drinks and you may use the rest for whatever, ah, accomodation you wish for this evening,” he said. “There will be five crowns and a horse waiting for you in Monkham. There will be ten more crowns in Garadel.” He stood. “Ask for Haversham. You’ll find him in the stables just outside of town to the north. Tell him you are the escort. Do not use my name; it would mean nothing to him anyway. The code word is ‘glory’.” He frowned. “Not what I would have picked. If he asks about Bill, Bill is dead.”
He stood so I did too. After all, he was my boss now. “I am pleased that I found you here, Hunter. I look forward to a long and beneficial relationiship. I will see you again after you are finished in Garadel.” We shook hands again and he left the inn without looking back. It was too late for him to start a journey tonight, but I was not surprised to see that he had found accomodation in a different inn. There were other places that offered services more suited to one of his class.
I paid for the beers and had plenty left over. The girl I had insulted was still there. She had seen me pay and now she saw me looking at her. She came back over, proving she was braver than I was.
“Change your mind?” she asked.
“I, uh, no, I mean, I’m not interested.” I felt myself turning red.
Her smile became more genuine. She touched my cheek gently. “I’ll be gentle, lad. You won’t forget it.”
“Look, here, just take this.” I handed her a coin, a ten-heller coin as it turned out. Rather more than it would have cost to have her stay with me all night. But I knew now that was impossible.
She looked at the coin, angry. “That’s all you think I am, isn’t it? That’s all you think I want?”
“No, I -” But she was gone. She did take the coin, though. So she couldn’t have been that badly hurt.
I stood and looked down on my unfinished beer. I wanted it, but I was on the job now. The crown he had given me bound me to his service as much as all the King’s gold would have.
There was nothing left to do but go up to my room and prepare for the trip. I had been camping in a copse of trees on the outskirts of town for the past few days, but I had felt the cold snap coming and had booked a room for the night, spending the last of my precious cash to be more comfortable. I must be getting soft to spend my last few coins just to be warmer for one night. Now I was flush again and glad to be indoors. I heard the wind picking up outside. The worst of the storm would pass by morning, but it was still going to be a cold journey. Fortunately I would be moving quickly and keeping myself warm.