Tying Loose Ends
The long winter passed and the snowy streets turned into muddy trails. At all corners of the city, the crafting facilities and stores brought their scanty selections back outside for the people to see, and the overall atmosphere seemed a lot more cheerful. The sky remained dark and the air never became quite as comfortably warm as it would if the golden light of the sun was allowed to reach the dwindling world. The trees continued dying, even though their struggle was prolonged once again by the brief summer. The animals came out more enraged and vicious than they had been before the winter. The people recognized the change, the slow decay that progressed without signs of improvement, but they still enjoyed the spring, for if nothing else, it provided them a faint glimpse of a fool's hope that maybe someday everything changed for the better. Perhaps one day the Solari would break through the dark clouds and shine upon the world like it had done in the misty past, the legendary Skywhales would float across the horizon in their massive beauty, and the fields would become lush and fertile, feeding the shrunken population and helping the people to build new, stronger foundation for the entire world. This, of course, was nothing but a beautiful daydream, and had nothing to do with the harsh reality.
The gloomy eyes stared at the mug of mead in front of him. Drevin was drinking his breakfast, like he had done for the past four months while he had been waiting for this day. The first day of spring that gave him clear signs of snow finally melting away, which would make the roads safer for a little while again. But before he could go, there was one thing he had to do.
After spending the day packing and looking for a horse that could carry him all the way to Meridan, a city on the western coast of Belmora, far away from Lokhan, he left the Broken Wheel Inn and headed toward the center of the city where he had not been since his last visit to the Burning Candle - and that was the precise address he was heading again. It had gotten dark before he was ready, but it did not bother him. He remained drunk constantly now, for the mead dulled the pain in his heart and made it easier to bear the ghosts of the past.
Carrying everything he needed for the journey on his horse, Drevin approached the Burning Candle Inn with slightly hesitant steps. It was getting late, but the inn seemed almost as busy as it had been during the days of Gerrick Woodglade and his pretty daughter. After tying his horse among others by the northern end of the inn, Drevin walked past the front door to the same alley where he had killed the Grey Cloak brigand many months earlier. The familiar wooden door was still there, welcoming his wobbly presence with rude silence. He leaned against the wall of the next house along the street, a carpenter's workshop that was closed at that time of the night. Blending into the shadows, he opened a full bottle of mead he had bought from the Broken Wheel, took a long sip and waited, but there was nothing alarming about the few drunken people who swayed in and out of the worn front doors.
As the midnight hour passed, the inn began to empty, slowly at first, but with an ever increasing pace. Drevin watched as the drunken merchants, smiths and others who could still afford to buy their buzz from the inn instead of making their own mead in the corners of their houses, laughed loudly as they finished the stories that had been shared by the hazy tables inside. A cold breeze blew through the streets, forcing him to wrap his thick cloak tighter around him. Finally, after one or two hours after midnight, the Burning Candle Inn was completely empty. The time had come for him to do the last thing he needed to do before he could leave this place and begin the long journey south, where the Hooded One was waiting.
* * *
Old Ned, tired after the long and exhausting night, wiped the rough wooden counter before he threw away the cloth and walked to the kitchen. The young waitress he had hired a month ago had finished the dishes and cleaned the tables spotless, and as usual, was already gone for the night by the time Ned got everything finished in the main hall. Ned was alone in his inn, which, as a true strike of luck, had ended up in his hands from the former owners. He had no clue what had happened to them. The names of Gerrick and Merwyn did not sound familiar to him, for he had lived in the ruins of his old inn for longer than he could remember. This chance given by Terrigan made the villain seem almost like a hero in Ned's eyes, even though he was perfectly aware of their shady ways.
The old man was deep in thought as he worked around the kitchen, fixing and setting everything ready for the morning. The innkeeper's life left very little time off, but Old Ned would have not traded it for anything. But it came close that his poor heart stopped beating - surely it did skip a beat or two - when he noticed a dreadful figure standing at the back of the kitchen. And even though Drevin's face had become slimmer and wryer since their last meeting, Ned had no trouble recognizing this man.
“You—,” Ned sighed barely audibly. “Have you— Have you come to kill me?”
Drevin took a long sip from his beloved bottle and smacked his lips, a dark fire glimmered in his stingy eyes. “That depends,” he said quietly. “I came to bid farewell to this place that was once owned by a good friend of mine, Gerrick Woodglade and his beautiful daughter, Merwyn. Should I leave in peace or paint bloody footsteps behind me is up to you.”
Ned felt the threat of those words heavy on his heart as he swallowed hard. The names remained unknown to him, but they suddenly had a whole new and deeper meaning.
“What do you want?” he could barely breathe.
“A simple answer,” Drevin said roughly while taking a step closer toward the old man, who was now as pale as the whitest sheet.
“I will do my best, whatever the question might be,” he wailed, squeezing the edge of the table to keep himself from shuddering.
“I hope so, Ned, for your life depends on it,” he whispered. Steel flashed in the dim, flickering light of the candle. Ned raised his hands up as a desperate sign for Drevin to halt for a moment.
“I'm truly sorry for what happened to your friends,” he spoke fast with high-pitched voice. “Terrigan Argos told me to move here and run the inn as if it was my own. When I found out that he was murdered, my initial thought was to abandon this place, but then I began to think—“
“That you could run this successful establishment at the center of the town instead of rotting away in the ruins of your old one,” Drevin ended the sentence for him, and Ned nodded silently, for he was too scared to say anything further.
His burning eyes measured the shivering figure of the old innkeeper, but eventually, even in his foggy, drunken mind, he had to admit that he was most likely telling the truth. He was nothing more than just an innkeeper who had seen the chance of a lifetime when his chains were suddenly broken by the death of his lord. Drevin sighed and sheathed his weapon with a long, tired groan.
“So be it, old man,” he then said. “You answered the question before I really had a chance to ask, but I wanted to be sure of your true nature before I leave this town,” he explained quietly, and every word penetrated Ned's mind like the sharpest knife cuts through the flesh. But by the time he realized that he would live to see another dim rise of the morning light, the assassin was already gone, disappeared through the same door he had entered.
Ned sat on the wooden stool and stared at the door quietly. Then, breathing heavily, he reached for a large, buckled mug and poured it full of strong mead – his shaken nerves required some relief.
The drink burned in his throat as he sighed deeply. “I'm getting too old for this,” he whined quietly to himself. But at the same time, in some weird and twisted way, he was happy about Drevin's visit as it gave him his blessing to keep tending this place that apparently held fond memories of passed friends.
There was spring in the air that morning as Drevin rode out on his black and white mare, heading toward southwest. A light, watery drizzle filled the air, turning the road into heavy slush, but the horse was a strong northern breed that could easily carry him over the dangerous moors despite the poor condition of the road. The first light of dawn shimmered on the horizon like a grey veil of sorrow that was pulled over the entire land. The Eclipse continued; nothing could change that. As long as the Ironcrown ruled in the South, the world would remain without hope. Death and decay would slowly take over, and soon the surviving population would be too small to defy this horrid change - too weak to fight back. But before that day would come, Drevin had decided that the cold body of the Hooded One was going to lie at his feet as a final sign and token of his victory and freedom. The revenge could not satisfy his thirst, but the bittersweet taste of it was everything he had left, and he yearned for more.
After a long sip from the mead bottle, one of many he had reserved for the journey, he began to hum the next verse of the familiar traveling song he had heard Gerrick singing a long time ago.
”Hey, the fork in the road,
the misty waters foam,
from the gorges to the heights,
from the meadows to the groves,
through the grass the road goes,
to a glade across the breeze,
there a nightingale will sing,
and the song sets me free”