Fim, I hadn’t posted this one, but since I haven’t made up my mind where the scenes divide into chapters I’ll put it here so you get a bit more information…
* * * * *
It was well into the wee hours of the new day when Kalen served the last round of pints to those few serious drinkers still scattered about the Inn before shooing them out the door, and off to their beds. It had been a profitable Friday night. She could tell because her feet hurt. With a distracted sigh, she passed another tray full of empties over the bar to Fergus. Carmel-brown gravy adorned her once-white apron and the white cuffs of her long, plain, blue-linen dress. She gathered her waist-length, golden-blonde hair in her hands and held it up to cool her neck, the frizzled bundle a strange mix of spicy pork sausage, tobacco, and sweet peat smoke.
Noticing the girl’s worried frown, Fergus Frasier’s bushy red eyebrows climbed to a peak. “Yer a bit on the worn side tonight, aren’t ye, lass?” He wiped his broad, grimy hands on his ale-stained apron. His flaming-red handlebar mustache had begun to droop in the warmth behind the bar, sweaty droplets kissing his shiny bald head. “Is there anythin’ wrong wi’ ye, missy?” He regarded Kalen with concern.
Kalen’s gaze rested for a moment on the empty chair by the fire. No matter his business, Will had always found time to play a game of Hounds and Dragons with Kalen on Friday nights, but not tonight. Kalen looked over her shoulder at Fergus and smiled. “Nah, Fergus.‘Tis jis’ me bloody feet,” she teased, mimicking his heavy, Moorland brogue. “They’re killin’ me!” She winked, taking the empty tray he handed her, and began to clear the last of the tables.
Fergus cocked his chin sideways, eyes narrowing. Worryin’ ‘bout Will, she is, he thought. T’is odd the man hain’t been about tonight. The frown lines on Fergus’ forehead bunched up. Aye, odd indeed.
Tables finally cleared and wiped down, Kalen was gathering up the tankard, pipe and tobacco she had left on the table by the fire earlier in the evening, when the door creaked open, and a weary, unkempt man trudged in. In a seeming daze, he wandered to the wing-backed chair by the hearth. Kalen had never seen him look so haggard. His face and graying hair were streaked with dirt, his hands and plain, deep-brown, suede clothes were filthy, his boots were soaked and caked with black mud.
An iron poker coaxed the dying fire to life, as Kalen added another log. She took the tankard to the bar, and handed it to Fergus. “Get me a meat pie, will you, love?” Fergus filled the tankard with the stout ale and handed it back to her. She set it on the gaming table by Will. His eyes were closed, and Kalen thought he’d fallen asleep. She knelt at his feet and began to untie his sodden laces.
Startled, he opened his eyes and grabbed her arm. “Don’t.” His voice was flat and tense. Motioning for her to rise, he pulled the stool closer with his booted toe. “Please, just sit with me for a moment.” Then taking the pint she’d brought, he drained it, and wiped his mouth on his coat sleeve, while Kalen sat in silence, waiting for him to speak his mind. Will dipped the long-stemmed pipe in the bag of tobacco, and tamped the oily plant loosely in the bowl. Putting the pipe between his lips, he sat unmoving, far too weary to light it.
Kalen rose and took a reed from the metal box on the mantle. Lighting it in the fire, she brought it to him. He cupped his hands about the filled bowl, and sucked the tobacco to life. Closing his eyes again, he drew potent smoke into his lungs, and leaned his head back in the chair. Tossing the reed into the fire, Kalen brushed fallen ash from her food-stained apron and returned to her seat. Fretful for her friend, and unable to remain quiet a moment longer, she leaned forward and took his free hand in both of hers. “Will, my friend, what is it? What has happened?”
Kalen’s eyes widened, and she smiled in wonder. “Why this is cause for celebration!” She clapped her hands and began to rise. “Is it not a favorable import for you, my friend?”
Fergus set a hot meat pie on the table at Will’s side. “Aye, tracker.” Next to it he laid a rough wooden spoon. “Ain’t no one seen a white stag in these ‘ere parts fer a badger’s age.
P’raps it means a good harvest this cumin’ year, eh?”
Taking another long draw on the pipe, Will exhaled and continued in a low, thoughtful voice. “Its antlers were caught in two tree branches.”
“You rescued it, surely,” prodded Kalen, her smile waning as she sat back down.
“No, my dear.” Will opened his eyes at last and looked from Kalen to Fergus. “It had been butchered where it stood.”
Always superstitious, Fergus muttered, “Good Lord, man,” and made the sign of his god.
Dismayed, Kalen’s stomach muscles tightened, and she clutched Will’s hand. “But who would have done such a thing?”
As Kalen made a soft, strangled sound, the door burst open and banged against the wall with a loud thud. The entryway began to fill with flurried snow and freezing air. Fergus crossed the room in a half dozen strides, looked outside to see if someone was about, then firmly closed and bolted the door. Returning to the fire, he took the knife and held it up in the light. An unusual knife, the dagger blade was fine, curved steel, the carved ivory grip was encrusted with sapphires, and the blade bore a line of unfamiliar symbols.
But Will’s attention was on Kalen. She had begun to shiver, and he suspected it was not from the cold. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he continued in a low, calm voice, “but whoever owns it used that beautiful animal as a sacrifice. I found its innards splayed open on a scorched, makeshift altar.”
Kalen stiffened. In her mind’s eye she was seeing an identical knife.
Will pushed the young woman closer to what troubled her. “What is it, Kalen?”
The color drained from Kalen’s face, her body was rigid and trembling.
“She’s seen it afore.” Fergus cussed, tossing the accursed thing on the table.
Will looked from Kalen to Fergus and back again. “Have you, Kalen?” He laid aside the pipe and took her hands in his to calm her tremors.
“Aye,” she whispered, her voice small and far away.
Will urged her on. “Where then? Where did you see it, Kalen?”
Angered, Fergus squatted at Kalen’s side and wrapped his arm about her shoulders, comforting her as he would a small child. “Stickin’ in her da’s heart, that’s where.” He pulled Kalen close, his large, clumsy thumbs wiping unbidden tears from her cheek. Fergus glared at Will and spat into the roiling fire. “That blade’s evil. It not be of this ‘ere world.”
Outside the inn, crouching close to the logs of the building, a dark shadow shivered into nothingness and retreated into another world.