Pin Wei looked out over the patrons in the crowded tavern as he walked out onto the small stage and sniffed in irritation. Mercenary riffraff and barbarians. This lot looked even rougher than the ones from the night before. He quickly tuned his lute then launched into the opening song of a Lugensian opera famous in the East. Only one old man seemed to be listening, the rest only showed their awareness of his music by raising their voices to be heard above it.
When Pin Wei finished his fifth song he paused to take a sip of the watered wine he kept near him while he performed. Tonight he found himself wishing there was considerably less water in it. He glanced around the tavern again. The seam-faced barbarian was still the only one watching him, and he found the old man’s stare unnerving. He’d played before princes and generals, he’d played in the largest theatres and opera houses the empires of the East had to offer, he’d played before crowds numbering in the thousands, and his stomach had never curled into knots the way it did before the gaze of this old man. He took another sip of his wine and launched into The Lay of the Hawk, a ballad that he’d learned in his youth about the destruction of the D’nuran Empire by barbarian hordes.
“It was the ending of the third age,” he sang. “Valiant Nieblungr still ruled Grathbol and the Empire of D’nur was at its height.” He frowned as the serving girl, her hands full of mugs, was greeted by a cheer from the men at the table near the hearth. He let his fingers work an extra arpeggio out of the lute, gathered his thoughts, closed his eyes, and continued. “Out of the dark west came the man they called the Reaper, scythe-bearer, black-clad and dark-skinned. And at his back rode all the hordes of Tarsith, blood-soaked, sharp-fanged, cannibal warriors from beyond the world’s end.”
Pin Wei opened his eyes. All the mercenaries were staring at him, while a lot of the other patrons were staring at the old barbarian. Habit kept his fingers moving. “The Reaper’s horde,” he sang, “aided by treachery and assassin’s guile —.”
There was a rumble of discontent from the men near the fire as those words fell from his lips.
“— swept across the borders of D’nur pillaging and burning as they came until they washed up upon the mighty fortress of D’vo, the Imperial City, famous for its golden spires and pearl-lined streets.”
“Ye’re full of shit!” It was the old barbarian. “Th’ only thing D’vo were ever famous fer were its battle pits. Get th’ damn story straight or sing someought else!”
Pin Wei stopped strumming and glared at the old man, a look that had quelled more than one fight. “And what would an illiterate fool like you know of D’vo?”
“A good sight more ’n ye do. Tis as clear as th’ nose on yer face that ye’ve ne’er e’en seen D’vo.”
“What would you know of what I’ve seen?” The accusation smarted, mostly because it was true. “I’ve been places you’ve never even dreamed of!”
The old man snorted. “I doubt that, boy, but tha’s neither here nor there. Are ye gonna start singin’ a different song or am I gonna hafta get up there an’ teach one ta ye?” The old man’s left hand was casually resting on the hilt of a long knife and his eyes were cold.
A large man in well-worn mail called out, “Shut up and let the lad sing whatever he wants. We don’t need barbarians like you telling us what music we can listen to.”
“Are ye objectin’ to me request then, friend?”
Everyone at the barbarian’s table fell silent.
“I’m not your friend, Barbarian, and damn straight I’m objecting to your request!”
The old man smiled. “Wonderful. Let’s take our discussion outside.” He stood and turned for the door, then paused. “Unless ye’ve th’ coin ta pay th’ tavern master fer th’ damages?” He raised an eyebrow questioningly.
The caravan guard stood and several of his friends stood with him. He was a tall man, and very broad, with a hard face. He’d smiled when the barbarian stood, slightly stoop-shouldered and whip-thin, though very tall. “Sit down grandpa, these discussions of yours are liable to get vigorous.”
“Were it just ye doin’ th’ objectin’, or do yer friends ha’ arguments o’ their own ta put forward?”
“We all object to your bein’ here,” said one of the guard’s friends.
“Good, good. Th’ more th’ merrier.” The barbarian led the way outside.
None of his companions joined him, though the youngest one looked like he’d have liked to but was kept in his seat by the hand of one of the others.
After the five guards had followed the barbarian out the door, Pin Wei stared at it as though it were a snake. He strained his ears for sounds from out in the street. There were several thumps, then, much sooner than he’d expected, the old barbarian walked back into the tavern. Pin Wei’s stomach flipped.
Every eye in the room turned to him. He concealed his suddenly trembling hands by strumming his lute, giving him time to gather his thoughts. He gave the old man a sour smile as he reached his table and reseated himself, then launched into a new song.
The barbarian sat back and took a long pull from his beer mug. “Bloody minstrels!” he said in reply to a question from one of his companions. “There ain’t bin one o’ ‘em has got that story straight, not in all the years they bin singin’ it.” He took another drink. “Ye’d think they’d get at least some o’ th’ details straight.”
Pin Wei frowned. The old man was a fool.
“Ye didn’t kill any o’ th’ guards did ye, Hawk?”
Hawk snorted. “Nay. Just tumbled ‘em about a mite.”
The barbarian sat through two more songs, rarely taking his eyes off Pin Wei who got increasingly nervous. At last he drained off his beer, and stood. “Time ta roust out! Borgensen will nah wait about fer scum like us!”
The mercenaries all stood, draining off their beers and gathering up their packs while the old man walked towards Pin Wei who had to stop himself from backing away.
“Th’ strumming were nice enough, lad, but ye ought ta get yerself some real learning afore ye go singing other folk’s songs.” He tossed a coin at Pin Wei’s feet. Then he strode out, the rest of the barbarians clattering noisily after him. None of them bothered to add coins of their own to the one Hawk had thrown.
The serving woman came back in and began gathering up the mugs and wiping down the tables.
“Who does that barbarian think he is saying things like that to me?” said Pin Wei, looking sourly around at the nearly empty room then down at the one gold coin at his feet.
The server paused on her way back to the kitchen. “Ye dinna ken?” She laughed. “That were Reaper Hawk.” She shook her head at the look of stunned incredulity on his face. “Ye’re lucky he liked yer strumming, boy, or ye’d be knowin’ what yer insides looked like right about now.” She laughed again as she walked off, the kitchen door swinging shut behind her.
Pin Wei looked from that door to the one that Reaper Hawk had just walked out of, disbelief, fear, and curiosity warring each other in his guts. Within seconds, curiosity won out. He tucked his lute back into its case and scrambled for the door and the trail of the greatest hero, or the greatest monster, of the third age. A man he hadn’t even recognised when they’d exchanged insults. He glanced back once, then shrugged. “Mam always said my curiosity would be the death of me,” he said as he opened the door. “But I’ve got to know.”
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