The inn was overflowing with spirit and sound. The serving wenches ran hither and thither, spilling foamy ale in their wake as the townsfolk mingled with one other.
“More!” Demanded the captain as he banged his empty tankard on the table.
“More!” Echoed his yeoman happily, eager to get drunk at their lord’s expense. Not that the innkeeper ever demanded any money from Lord Harkady’s men anyway, but tonight marked a special occasion and the small town of Charham was experiencing the magnanimity of their tyrant. Seven oxen roasted on spits along the town centre; ale flowed freely and easily. The innkeeper reached for another cask. With the profit margin, he would be a rich man at the end of the night.
The door swung just as he pried the cask open. It was strange, he noticed, how the newcomer cast no shadow. Even stranger was the way the hubbub died as he entered the inn with his black holdall and headed straight for the innkeeper. Even the usually boisterous yeomen had taken to whispers upon the new arrival. Only the Lord’s Pet remained unaffected, scribbling gods knew what on the floor.
“What can I do for you, guv’nor?” The innkeeper said evenly, gauging the new entrant. The man was dressed in a black shirt with matching breeches tucked inside black, knee length boots. Somewhat surprisingly, a pink wide-brimmed hat adorned his head. His features were hidden behind a ragged beard with streaks of grey, his age seemed indeterminate. But it was his eyes, the innkeeper noticed, that really set him apart. Onyx black eyes, deeper than the deepest fathoms of the oceans, older than Time itself. Despite himself, the innkeeper shivered a little.
The newcomer seemed to take stock his surroundings. The innkeeper knew what he would see. The walls needed a fresh layer of paint, the bar could do with replacing, and the inn could benefit from an extra stool or two. Faded tapestries hung on the walls, all marked with the Harkady sigil – a pair of crossed axes, gold on black.
The innkeeper cleared his throat. “Do you need something?”
The man placed his hands on the bar, chains rattling as he did. Two antique-looking guns peeped over his shoulder, bound by thick chains to his arms up to the elbow.
“Yes,” his voice was deep, but not coarse, “but I’m not sure you can give it to me.”
Innkeeper was perplexed. “What would that be?”
“I want information.”
“Information about what?” The innkeeper cleaned a mug nonchalantly with a growing sense of dread. He cast surreptitious glances towards the group of yeomen sitting across the hall, but for now they seemed to be content spilling ale from their tankards and slapping the serving girls on the rump.
“About all this.” The stranger swept his gaze around the room. “What is celebration about?”
The innkeeper relaxed. The man was only curious, it seemed.
“It’s been ten years since he came to power.” The innkeeper picked up another mug and started wiping it. “He is celebrating the fulfilment of the Prophecy. Tonight he consolidates his rule.”
“Is he, really?” The stranger seemed to consider this. “Interesting man, your Lord Harkady. Must have been, to have got to where he is today.”
“Yes, interesting indeed.” The innkeeper glanced nervously towards the yeomen. While the others still seemed to be engrossed amongst themselves, the captain, who seemed drunk only a moment ago, was watching them with interest. A thin bead of sweat trickled down the innkeeper’s neck.
“If you don’t mind now, would you rather have some beer?” He asked desperately.
The stranger simply shook his head and gestured towards the Pet.
“Who’s that?” He asked, pointing towards the little boy in the dirty robe.
“One of Lord Harkady’s fancies, I believe. He brought him here when he arrived.” The innkeeper said. “Look now, guv’nor...”
The stranger got up and walked towards the little boy.
“What’s your name, lad?” He asked, not unkindly.
The boy wiped a runny nose on his sleeve. “What’s it to you, mister?”
“It may well be everything, little one.” The stranger ruffled his hair and took out a violin from his bag. “You know what this is?”
“O’course I do.” Came the indignant reply.
“Of course, you do.” The stranger agreed. “Do this for me, will you? Run along to the innkeeper and order a bowl of his best stew. Go on then, there’s a good lad.”
The child watched the stranger with suspicious eyes, but soon the prospect of free food overcame his suspicion.
"Let the lad eat to his fill. Here's something to cover the expenses." The stranger threw the innkeep a coin. A chill ran up the innkeep's spine once more as he caught sight of the gold coin. It carried the seal of the Abelors.
"This coin is cursed," he hissed through his teeth, aware of eyes upon him.
The stranger simply shrugged. "Gold is gold, cursed or no."
"I will not take this!" The innkeep threw the coin on the floor.
"Your wish," sighed the stranger, throwing another coin up to him. "Here, have a silver one for your troubles."
Grumbling, the innkeep pocketed the coin and served the Pet. The stranger tuned his violin, strumming it every now and again till the individual chords became more coherent. Music flowed like a river in flood. It was a simple tune, yet profoundly sad and wistful. A hush fell over the inn as the soulful rendition entranced every soul, dragging one back to the happiest days of one’s life, the best memories, of things that were and never shall be again. And then, just as soon as it started, the music stopped. The violin lay smashed on the floor.
“Fancy yourself a musician, do you?” The captain of the yeoman was breathing heavily, his face red with anger and exertion. “Music has been banned by the lord himself.”
“Your lord, not mine,” the stranger said equably, “and I am more of a composer, I believe.”
“Hear that lads? We’ve got a real composer here. Here in Charham, our very own composer! He’ll play music for us.” The captain gave a chuckle. “Tell us, what will you play now?”
The yeoman abandoned their drinks and surrounded him, their swords in their hands. The man smiled again as he stood up; it was not a pleasant smile.
“Think of it as an Overture to Death,” he said darkly.
The innkeeper had heard of Quickdraws, master gun-men adept at getting accurate shots off in rapid succession. This small group of legendary gunmen could bend their bullets and do things with a gun that people couldn't even dream of. What he hadn’t expected was the speed with which the chained hands drew out the guns from their holsters with barely a tug, nor had he completely comprehended how the expertly guided movements cut through the yeomen leaving only the captain standing feeling slightly stupefied. All the eyes in the inn had turned on the tableau, as the stranger and the captain stood facing each other in their own private world, like a remote island far out in the foamy blue ocean.
“Run,” said the stranger.
The captain obeyed without hesitation. He was well out of the door when the stranger turned and fired a single shot. There was a distant grunt and the heavy thump of a body hitting the ground.
“Can’t do that with swords, mind.” The stranger chuckled, winking at the innkeeper. “I’ll have a jar of your strongest ale, a loaf of black bread and a bowl of stew the lad is having.”
The innkeeper stared at the stranger, his mouth agape. “You just...you did...but how?”
“Wrong questions, guv’nor,” the stranger said, restringing his violin. “The question you should be asking is why, and what now.”
The innkeeper wondered about that and shuddered. Haunting music filled the inn again, the wistful melody from the violin playing a more intense theme now. The Overture to Death, he’d called it, and Death would come soon, one way or the other. He was certain of it; Lord Harkady was unlikely to leave this little incident go unpunished. But for now there was only the music, and that was the only thing that mattered.