With every step I took through the sucking mud and dung and mule piss into Mountain Hole, the gold folded securely in my belt grew heavier. I calmed my shaking hands and resolved that this time would be different. This time I would wake each morning clear-headed and I would go to bed each night having only lost enough money to make the locals happy to see me the next day.
It’s a little story I tell myself every time I come to a new town with money in my purse. My story is no more truthful than the tales of Evil Things in the Night that mothers tell their children to keep them from misbehaving, and no more effective.
My own grandmother told me of the Evil Things while I sat on her lap by the fire, sometimes with a roof over our heads, other times without, depending on current circumstances, and from her lips the descriptions of the Evil Things sounded frightening indeed. Monsters with yellow eyes and great teeth that slipped through the darkness unseen. Human forms, little more than shadows, that killed with a touch. Gloriously frightening, fascinating for their danger. In her tales, when the hero arrived it sounded like the party was over. I loved my grandmother. My mother, I think, ever the pragmatist, would have preferred dear Grams tell her stories in a more traditional form, but I caught her secretly smiling more than once. Mother was raised on the same stories, after all. You might even say that my mother married one of the Evil Things of the Night, but we shall speak no more of him if we can avoid it.
As I trudged into town the heavy air carried a feel of pent-up lightning, a tension waiting for release. Or perhaps that was just me. In the distance ahead, beyond a handful of ramshackle hovels at the far end of the street, the mountain rose cold and hard, stunted trees clinging anywhere purchase could be found, shrouded in shifting clouds. A waterfall scarred its granite face, leaping down from above in a series of cascades with great energy, the sound of the rushing water a constant reminder that it was here before we were. Somewhere else, it might have been beautiful.
The street had been churned by heavy traffic and saturated with rain until it was a slow, muddy river, flowing with grim determination back the way I had come, as if even the mud knew something I didn’t. Somewhere nearby a shout was answered by the bray of a mule, while ahead of me two men in ragged clothes stood in the muck shouting at each other, their friends gathered under an awning nearby calling encouragement to both sides. That would be where the alcohol was. Even as I watched one of the pair took a hopeless swing at the other, and they both collapsed into the foul mud, either wrestling or drowning, to the cheers of the onlookers. I would not be one of the buffoons in the mud, I told myself. Another story.
To my right I passed a livery, the lower half built of stone and the upper half of green timber, freshly cut. The burned-out building next door told the rest of the story. Across from the livery squatted a stone building sturdier-looking that its neighbors, with bars across its narrow windows and a heavy door. Whatever passed for the law in town would be found in there. Whoever it was would be more beholden to the mine than to the king.
By the time I reached the awning that announced the entrance to the tavern the entertainment had ended, and most of the participants were back inside, drinking. One of the combatants remained, prone in the muck at the edge of the road, bleeding but breathing in short gasps. The mud should help seal his wounds. I stepped past him and through the open door into the darkness of the tavern.
The six tables were little more than planks nailed to trestles, the boards warped and greyed with age, stained by spills from countless mugs. Benches lined them on either side, and a three-legged stool stood listing at each end. Two overturned barrels also served as tables but seemed reserved for dice games. Two smaller tables occupied corners of the room. I like that sort of spot, but both were occupied.
The fire in the hearth did little to heat the place, but the smell of burning pine helped to cover the sour odor of unclean bodies and ancient puke. The floorboards creaked under my feet as I ventured farther into the gloom, but no one paid me any notice.
Men sat, men drank, men played cards. These were men who won their daily bread fighting the mountain, attacking the living stone and the wealth it concealed. There was a grey cast to the men to match the tables, their warped and knotted hands mirroring the twists and knots of the boards. They were strong men, and hard, but the mountain was winning. They played their games of chance listlessly, with a minimum of conversation, rarely even looking at one another.
“What you want, m’lord?” The kid came up to my shoulder, but may have been half my weight. Probably a girl, despite the trousers and tunic. Her clothes were threadbare and patched in several places. Her dark hair was cut short in a jagged line, simply sawed off with a knife, and not a sharp one at that. Her skin had the smoky tint of the distant south, of a place where the sun shone down from high above and clouds cowered in fear. She had a dark smudge on one cheek, but was otherwise the cleanest one in the room. She held an earthen pitcher of beer.
“I’m no lord,” I said.
“You got all your fuckin’ teeth?”
I smiled. “Yes.”
“Then you’re a fuckin’ lord in this donkey’s asshole of a town. What you want?”
“A room,” I said. “Then drink, then food.”
“I’ll get my uncle,” she said. She plunked the pitcher on a table without looking at the men seated there, and called through the open door at the back of the room, “There’s some sorry-ass traveler out here wants a fuckin’ room!” She didn’t wait for a response, but turned back to me. “He’ll be out here eventually, after he’s done jacking off.”
I seated myself at the end of one of the long benches, away from other patrons. I wasn’t ready to make new friends yet. “Well then,” I said, “bring me a godfucked beer.” I displayed one of the few silver coins I had liberated from the baron.
A tiny hint of a smile survived for a fraction of a second on her face, before vanishing as if it had never been. “Hold your fuckin’ pants on,” she said. “There’s all these worthless sacks of shit ahead of you.” She gestured vaguely around the room. No one present seemed to take exception to her words. They were as numb to her as they were to everything else.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said, then I smiled. “So shift your idle pox-ridden ass and bring beer for these heroes of the seven virgins’ sausage feast before that one over there drops dead in his seat.”
The smile lasted just a fraction longer before girl disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a pitcher and a mug, which she dropped in front of me. Apparently I had been moved to the head of the line. My eyes had adapted enough by then to see that it was not a smudge on her cheek after all, but a bruise, almost healed. Her high cheekbones and sharp, intelligent eyes suggested that she might be beautiful one day, if she could survive the journey into adulthood. Mountain Hole would not make that easy.
She stayed by my table, her hands linked in front of her. “What was that thing you said? About the sausage feast?”
I poured myself a mug and took a sip. No worse than I expected. “Do you know the story of the seven virgin sisters?”
“It is said they sustained their beauty by luring men to their castle and feasting on their privates.”
The serving girl grinned. “That is fuckin’ magnificent.” And with that, I had a new friend in Mountain Hole. One need not be well-liked to survive in the world, but being on good terms with the person who brings the alcohol can make any day a little easier.
I took another, larger gulp and felt the glow begin in my belly, a feeling of benevolence towards those around me. “It doesn’t end so well for them, I’m afraid. Eating the genitals of prince and pauper alike is frowned upon.”
She looked around the room. “Heroes of the fuckin’ feast.”
“Knowing the old stories can do wonders for your cursing.”
Her grin faded into a smile, simpler but deeper. She had never considered that cursing might be a talent, a gift to be cultivated. I felt a moment of pride as her world got a tiny bit larger. “My name is Martin,” I said. I held out my hand.
“Elena,” she said, suddenly shy. Timidly she extended her hand toward mine, her cheeks deepening in color.
Alas, moments like that are fleeting by their very nature, and that was the moment her uncle chose to emerge from the back of the tavern. The girl scuttled to the far end of my table to collect an empty pitcher. “She botherin’ you?” the uncle asked.
I appraised the uncle as he watched Elena through suspicious eyes. He was a soft man, tending toward round, his swarthy skin shiny with sweat and oil, his dark hair cut short the way hers was, but more neatly. Clearly Elena was the better barber in the family. The uncle was, I was certain, the author of the bruise that marked Elena’s face. It was easy to dislike the man, but often we must do business with those we don’t like.