DebtMature

         The first rays of sunlight filtered through the tiny inn room’s window. Engle woke slowly. His feet hung off the foot of the bed, and his armor dug painfully into his skin, making him regret falling asleep in it. He groaned and sat up, blinking his eyes against the growing light. He swung his legs to the side of the bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes with his fingertips.

            He glanced to the corner of the room across from the bed. The nymph lay curled there, her eyes tightly shut and her breathing even. Engle sighed and stood from the bed, listening to his joints crack and feeling his tight muscles loosen beneath the armor plating. He winced; he had meant to stay awake long enough to move the nymph to the bed after she had fallen asleep, but his exhaustion must have been too much, for he had fallen to slumber the moment his head had touched the rather uncomfortable pillow.

            He carefully walked over to where Heather laid, the soles of his boots clicking on the scuffed wooden flooring. He stooped and slid his hands underneath the nymph, gently lifting her from the indurate floor. She weighed next to nothing as he carried her back to the small bed. As he lowered her down onto the rough woolen blankets, she tucked her knees beneath her chin but did not wake.

            Engle brushed the hair out of her face before turning to plod quietly from the room. He closed the thin door behind himself softly. He strode down the narrow hallway to the dimly-lit stairwell. Candlesticks hung from the walls of the stairwell, their tallow contents burned and melted to small waxy nubs that had spilled and dripped to rest in thick hardened splotches on the steps. The planks creaked in dull protest beneath his feet. The stairway’s landing opened to the tavern floor, a modest room that stank overwhelmingly of stale beer. Engle crinkled his nose at the smell, scanning the area. A few men already milled about despite the hour, some even holding steins in their cracked and calloused hands. Several eyes looked up from what once distracted them to watch as Engle crossed over to the bar.

            The ill-tempered tavern keeper stood behind the long counter, rubbing the surface with small circular movements of a ragged cloth in his hand. He paused the action long enough to spit upon the counter before resuming his polishing. The old bearded man did not look up as Engle leaned against the bar, his arms crossed.

            “Something to drink?” the rosy-cheeked man asked gruffly.

            “No thanks. I don’t drink,” Engle replied smoothly.

            The old man huffed. “Well then you may not be in the right place, kid. Why the hell not?”

            Engle considered for a moment. “Too expensive,” he answered truthfully.

            The tavern keeper abruptly stopped polishing the bar and looked up, his red face becoming redder. “And by that you mean what exactly?”

            Engle grinned to himself. “I mean that I can’t pay you the three crowns for the night.” The bartender opened his mouth to retort, showing a good many missing teeth among yellowed ones, but Engle raised a hand and cut him off. “However,” he said, leaning forward, “I might just be able to pay you with something else.”

            The man drew back slightly, his brows lowering over dull green eyes. “Oh yeah? What with?” he asked slowly.

            Engle smiled only just. He pulled away from the bar and opened a pouch in his belt, drawing out a small black device. He held up the object between two fingers for the bartender to see, leaning once more against the counter.

         The old man squinted at the object. “And what the hell is that?”

         “A light. One that will last longer than a candle or a lantern and be brighter as well.”

         “Let me see.”

         Engle nodded and brought the small thing down from the air between them. He clicked a small button on the side of the object. A bright halo alighted on the counter’s dull surface, reflecting back into the old man’s bewildered face. The tavern keeper cautiously slid his fingers beneath the ray of light, causing dark shadows to dance beneath his fingertips. Engle clicked the small button once more, and the resplendent light disappeared instantly. The old man withdrew his fingers and glared at Engle, who smirked back.

         “Fine,” the tavern keeper said, snatching the device from Engle’s fingers, “consider your debt repaid.”

         “Thank you, Mister…”

         “Wilhelmsen. Just call me Tom though,” he said bluntly. “Everyone else does.” He slipped the object into his apron while he turned and began rummaging around on the shelves lined with many bottles containing liquids of amber and ruby hues. “Ah!” he exclaimed. He pulled a narrow bottle from the shelf. It contained a dark brown liquid that sloshed as the bartender uncorked the glass and poured a minute amount into a small tumbler. He slid the tumbler across the bar where it glided to a stop in front of Engle. Engle cocked an eyebrow at the old man.

         “It’s on the house,” Tom reassured him. Engle shrugged at that, picking up the glass and bringing it to his lips. He kicked it back, the liquid burning a trail down his throat. He set down the glass down sharply and smiled slightly at Tom.

         The stairs creaked faintly. Engle glanced at the landing as Heather’s small figure stepped lightly from the stairwell. She looked worried, but the expression dropped from her face when she spotted Engle. The nymph walked over to him. A murmur suddenly rose from the men around the room. Engle threw a glare around the tavern, making eye contact with each person that had decided to chatter. They quickly dropped their gazes and quieted.

         Engle pushed away from the bar. “Come on,” he murmured to Heather. “Let’s go.” He looked up. “Thanks again,” he told Tom. The old man waved to him, the black device in his fingers. Engle turned and walked across the room, shoulders back, head up, and Heather in tow. He threw open the door and stepped out into the daylight.

         He looked around; there was a long, dusty road that stretched around The Laughing Giant. People walked in groups down the road, most heading to the left where a large marketplace seemed to be, their long robes billowing behind them. Engle could see many stalls and booths lining the road a ways down with customers spilling into the street.

         “Maybe we should go there?” Heather pointed down the road at the gathering crowd.

         “Maybe,” Engle replied.

         A shout rang from the throng of people in the marketplace, followed by more yells and a few screams. The crowd in the bazaar began to shuffle and move away from the commotion.

         “What was that?” Heather asked.

         “I have no idea,” Engle said, straining to see farther down the road. He turned to the nymph. “Let’s find out.”

 

The End

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