Tal watched the pub, huddled against the rain underneath a cloak which had more patches than cloak to its name. His hand strayed to the knife in his belt, touching it for reassurance but sickened by the fear he would have to use it. Tal swallowed, wished they’d allowed him a beer before they set out.
Most of his money was going straight back to pay what he owed. So he stood there, soaked through to the skin, and waited. He had followed the merchant around for days, stood next to his premises, where he received visitors all day. At dusk, he would close the shop, accompanied by his assistant, where they would go for one drink then head home. The assistant accompanied him inside his home and then Tal would tell Bailey what he saw, repeating particular details over until his tongue went numb then told to come back in the morning.
They would do it tonight. Closed location, quick and nasty, get out and get paid. Tal wanted to make water, but he was too frightened and excited to move. His taste for violence was much like his taste for love, often thwarted and disappointed, but he still carried the anticipation in his bones.
His singing announced his arrival, a rich, melodic refrain which came from his school days, and the shuffle of his assistant struggling to keep up.
AH ALL MY DAYS
IN ALL THE WAYS
A VIVARIAN EXCELS
Tal turned and realised he had no one to signal. All his excitement borrowed, and his biggest achievement was behind him. Wait for Bailey and Reigel to come out. Get into the wagon.
The merchant moved with some power, despite his girth, maintained by a regimen of sitting down and a strict diet of whatever he pleased whenever he pleased. The assistant was tiny, Tal thought. He had never gotten close enough, but he bet he was one of those smart boys, no muscle but learned to read and write, and the stab of envy sickened him with its speed.
Tal watched them walk into the inn, the merchant bellowing out a greeting in his native tongue. He imagined Bailey and Reigel at their table, waiting for him to sit down before they got up and killed him. The assistant, too.
He imagined being free of his debt and shuddered in a way the rain could never inspire. Still, the assistant, he was just in the wrong job and Tal related to that. He wondered if he had a little wife and little kids at home. Then he remembered he lived at the merchant’s house, but a little family wouldn’t take up room.
The crash from inside the inn roused Tal’s attention. His body flooded with alarm as he stood there, screaming inside his head as he realised no one had told him what to do if something went wrong. Despite his instincts, Tal drew his dagger and ran across the street, kicked open the door of the inn and went inside.
Reigel had been in the Vivarian Foreign Legion, was seven feet tall with thick slabs of muscles and a nicked sword dark with blood. He laid across a table, head hung over the edge at an angle which suggested his sword darkening days were over.
Bailey had her back to Tal, staggering away as she clutched her face. Past her, Tal saw someone leap up, too quick to identify. Bailey said something between her closed fingers, but it was all wet vowel sounds. Tal moved past her, to finish what they had started.
He fell to his knees, all the wind knocked from him before he heard a loud crack and Bailey screamed in pain. Tal threw the dagger, put his palms on the ground and tried breathing. Someone landed behind him. Tal looked up. The merchant moved out of the inn.
He got his spasming lungs under control and turned, saw Bailey on her back, holding her arm and screaming. Tal got to his feet, swaying and coughing before he pointed out the back of the inn.
Bailey was insensible, so Tal shrugged and staggered after them. His head had wanted to go in the opposite direction, but his feet had obeyed the reality of his situation. He made it outside, despite each breath burning and scratching him from the inside, saw the merchant jiggling across the street.
As he lurched outside, he saw Willingham sprinting towards them. He had his dagger clutched in his hand as he chased the merchant down. Tal blinked and saw someone nip out from in front of the merchant towards Willingham.
Tal watched the little man leap into the air, bringing his knees up and driving them into Willingham’s collarbones as he threw elbows into his head from above. Willingham fell backwards, arms flailing as blood streamed down his face. The little man stared at Tal, then the dagger in his hand as he landed.
‘Do you plan on doing anything with that, sir?’ he said.
Tal tossed the dagger to the dirt and shook his head. He pointed to the inn behind him.
‘Was that you back there?’ he said.
The little man bowed from the waist. He had a rueful smile as he stood up.
‘It doesn’t matter, no one confesses to getting beaten up by a halfling,’ he said.
Tal put his hands up, shaking his head.
‘Hey, no, I will tell everyone, just don’t do to me what you did to the others,’ he said.
The halfling put his hands on his hips as he narrowed his eyes.
‘Shucks, would you? Hey, let me help you out some,’ he said.
He reached to his belt and tossed a small, but full pouch to the ground.
‘Mah name is Ron Brandywood, out of Hobbes’ Hollow,’ he said.
Tal shivered as he tried to focus on the face of the halfling and keep smiling. If he kept smiling and didn’t look at Willingham’s body on the ground. Ron smiled and waved towards Willingham.
‘Hey, they’re all still alive,’ he said.
Tal tittered, and it made Ron chuckle and shake his head.
‘Bless your heart, sir, now ah must get along,’ he said.
Tal looked at the purse.
‘Why don’t you kill them?’ he said.
Ron smiled and looked upwards.
Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, sir,’ he said.
Tal’s upper lip wrinkled at being called sir, but by then Ron was turning back to the merchant, guiding him away. Picking up the purse, Tal saw there was a lot there, but he was afraid to count it in the open. He scurried away in the opposite direction and in an alcove, checked the contents of the purse.
Pay off his debts.
No more alms from the church. New clothes.
No more drink, he decided.
He looked up and saw the heavy clouds overhead, and decided he could spare himself just one drink.
Tal never considered whether he should have had just one drink.
They found him in a saloon, chucking the last of his coins as he rolled the wooden dice, too drunk to see how weighted they were. When he felt the point of the knife at the small of his back, he sobered up and closed his eyes, shaking his head at his own misfortune. He smiled, saw the dice land on his number and told the gathered patrons to buy drinks on him. Tal let them guide him away, and he thought about the little man again. He didn’t want to say a halfling had beaten him up, so he decided he shouldn’t give that up to anyone.
Tal smiled at being called sir as they loaded him into the back of the cart.