A hushed silence fell over the inn as the Tsaldorian walked in. Bawls turned into whispers, and whispers into mutterings, as all eyes followed the tall dark-robed man across the room. The tattoos on his face shone in the dim firelight, and his bangles jingled with every stride. If he was aware of the attention he’d drawn, he showed no signs of it as he languidly drew up a chair at the counter, and looked around for the innkeeper. His deep voice punctured the silence.
The innkeeper, Rane, was a short stout man who had served his tables for thirty years. He had heard stories of the Northerners, but never seen one himself. He disliked newcomers, they were almost always trouble. A worried look on his face, he slowly walked up to the Tsaldorian, well aware that all the men in the inn were keenly waiting for him to ask the foreigner to leave.
“We’ve never served your kind here.”
A tattooed brow was raised, and the Tsaldorian stared at him. A chill went down Rane’s spine.
“Well, now you will.”
The innkeeper hesitated for a moment, and then changed his mind. It wasn’t wise to pick up a quarrel with someone who could be a mir-hasen. He fetched the cask and poured out the drink. Most of the other men, disappointed, turned around and resumed their chatter. Not all, though. Rane noticed two sturdy men in blue cloaks at the back, still turned around, watching the Tsaldorian. It made him uncomfortable.
The Tsaldorian had downed it all, he thumped the keg down on the wood.
Rane slid the entire cask across.
“What brings you down here, Northerner?”
The Tsaldorian looked up, but didn’t reply. He slowly poured himself another keg. “You know your drinks, you Esmoreans,” he said, twirling the contents before gulping them down.
The innkeeper didn’t know what to say. Bloody Northerners, he mumbled to himself, getting back to work. There were tables to clean, meals to serve and coins to collect. He did not like a Tsaldorian in his inn - Esmorea and Ar Tsaldor weren’t enemies per se, but they were not friends, either. Kven Fojar was barely a hundred miles south, and he did not know how the King’s men would react to this news. But there was nothing he could do about it.
Rane smiled apologetically at his customers as he tended to the tables. They must have had questions about the Tsaldorian, but he was not going to answer any. He scrubbed the wood where the stains would go, and removed empty plates and stacked them up on his counter. He chopped up the meat and vegetables, and set up another pot of soup to boil over the fire. He counted his earnings for the day so far, and then got back to the Tsaldorian, again, who had poured himself a fourth filling by now.
“Do you need anything else?”
The Tsaldorian didn’t reply this time, either. He kept staring at the keg, his tattooed eyes observing the design along the rim. Sips instead of gulps, and no signs of intoxication. It annoyed Rane.
“I’m talking to you, stranger. Do you need anything else?”
“Three leaves and an emerald - Neblancan make. From the castles of a Mage, no less. Where did you get these kegs, innkeeper? ” the Tsaldorian asked.
Rane looked at the keg. There were elaborate carvings on the wood, near the rim. He had never looked at the detail closely or wondered about it; they were gifts from a passing caravan who had appreciated his sympathetic ear and tales of local lore.
“I don’t remember. Listen, Northerner, if that is all, you should pay and leave.”
The Tsaldorian looked at him calmly, as if he were considering him. He looked amused. Rane, still annoyed and slightly afraid that he might have caused offence to a Tsaldorian, got back to work, again, stirring the pot of soup for awhile before tending to the new customers. He didn’t like strangers, especially those who were difficult to read.
Patterns on fucking kegs. Bloody fucking Northerners.
The two men at the back were staring at him, now, and beckoned him over. Rane walked up to them.
“Need anything else, my men?”
“Inkface bothering you, brother?” the taller one asked. “He doesn’t look very friendly to me.”
“Nah, it’s nothing.”
“If he is you let us know, brother,” the other one said. “We can deal with him,” he said, pulling back his cloak. Rane noticed that they were wearing armour underneath, and both of them were carrying swords, scabbards with a silver thread down the middle. Kven Fojar.
“It’s nothing, my good men. A stranger passing by, he’ll be gone.”
“Going where, exactly?” the first one asked.
“We don’t want any Northerner sneaking past our gates down the road, now,” the second man chimed in.
This was exactly the sort of trouble Rane was hoping to avoid. He didn’t want the town-folk to get involved. It would be bad for business.
“Is he a simple Northerner, or one of them lightshapers?”
“He wouldn’t say. He doesn’t say much. Why don’t you men deal with him after he leaves?”
Both the guards chuckled. “We’re just helping you out, brother. Not looking for a fight.”
“Yes, not until your mysterious thirsty friend there decides to start one.”
Friend. Rane was worried, now. He couldn’t let them think he knew the Northerner - it would lead to more questions later on from more guards, and not all of them would believe what he would say, or pay for their drinks. He needed to act now to avoid trouble.
“Alright men, I’ll tell you. I don’t know who he is, and I don’t know if he’ll pay for that fine cask of my mead he’s downing right now. He doesn’t answer straight, and those tattoos are unnerving me. If you gentlemen would be so kind as to escort him out, you could finish that cask yourself.”
The guards looked at each other, glad to have found a fight. The taller one got up and patted Rane on the back.
“We thought so, brother. Come, we’ll show him his way out.”
They unclasped their cloaks, revealing chain-mail and armour and Kven Fojar’s coat of arms and walked towards the Tsaldorian, stout Rane in their wake. The inn noticed, and a silence fell over the place again. The guards surrounded the man at the counter, one on each side. Rane held back, slightly nervous.
“You’re harassing innocent an innocent innkeeper on his land, Northerner. Pay and leave, now.”
The Tsaldorian looked at them briefly before he went back to observing the engravings on his keg, unconcerned.
“His land?” he chuckled. “All of it is ours. He's borrowed it, is all. As have you, inside those walls down the road.”
The guards drew out their swords together.
“Borrowed? Now that's the kind of language that gets you stabbed in the alley outside, stranger. Careful with that tongue, you might lose it. Leave, now.”
The Tsaldorian glanced at their blades without interest, unfazed. He took another sip from his keg. The silence around him grew louder as the rest of the inn waited for for a brawl.
“I’m going to Kven Fojar, to meet the King,” he said, “and I will leave only when I have finished drinking.”
“Kven Fojar built a slavers city for your kind in the North, why don’t we cut you into pieces and send you back there?” the taller guard growled and yanked him off the table by his robe, holding the sword at his throat.
The Tsaldorian acrobatically slipped from the guard's grasp and wrenched the sword away while throwing his assailant to the floor.
Suddenly, the fireplace in the corner seemed to grow wilder.
Yellow flames flew into the air menacingly, like feathers in a violent gust of wind, and darted towards the Tsaldorian. The shadows danced across the walls in the room, and there were gasps of fear as drinks were spilled and chairs were upturned. The flames swiveled and hovered around the steel, licking the surface with hissing sparks. The other guard drew back in horror as the Tsaldorian swung the sword down in an arc of fire, leaning on the hilt and looming over the man groaning on the floor.
Bar the burning sword, the rest of the inn lay in cold darkness. Rane, like the others, cowered away in terror from the flames near the Tsaldorian's - no, lightshaper's - face whose tattoos gleamed in a colour he could not name. His eyes were red in anger, his face contorted in fury.
“You built Feremast, yes. And one day, Ar Tsaldor will burn it to the ground.”
The lightshaper threw the sword down - and the fire returned to the logs in the fireplace in a darting streak, as quickly as it had left them. By the time the lightshaper had slapped a few golden trebs on the table, they had started crackling again. He pulled up his cloak and calmly walked out of the inn, as Rane watched in stunned silence. It was a while before the innkeeper, shaken up himself, helped the injured guard to his feet.
“You told us he wasn’t a bloody mir-hasen!”
“I - I didn’t know.”
The guard clutched at his side in pain and muttered expletives as he picked up his sword. It was surprisingly cool, but he noticed that it felt different in his hand. Carved into the steel was a new engraving - three leaves and an emerald - as if it were Neblancan steel, right from the castle of a Mage himself.