by Chris Buchanan
Fantasy novella, 2013
You open your eyes and roll into an inn. Before the sun is up you hope to make reality of your dreams. The dragonslayer’s axe shines above. Is that what you wanted?
It begins the way it always begins. You push your shoulder against the hard wooden door of the inn and buckle under its weight. Your cheeks get hot and it makes you angry. You dare not spit.
You push harder until you feel the old iron hinges relent and swing away behind you. There is so much smoke and beer-froth and heat and thick, candle-burnt air that it gets into your eyes and makes them sting. Hoping that nobody inside has seen you, you rub your face against your small knuckles and breathe.
It’s muggy in this room and your head is swimming. You don’t remember how long you have walked. Perhaps you are just weary, or perhaps it’s the overpowering smell of rotten, spirit-soaked wood, but you struggle to remember why you came here.
You remember that a hero is in this place.
You remember that you want to travel.
You remember that you will face great danger, and this makes you smile.
Your arm is still sore. You open your eyes.
This is the first time you have set foot in a tavern. As you glance about, your back still facing the door, you hope that you don’t look as lost as you feel. The patrons who fill-out the hall are large, sweaty and long-haired. There are a lot of braids and knotted beards, and this seems strange to you, because you are from another place. Your hair is smooth and simple.
A woman’s skirt brushes your face and you look up, startled. She seems to notice, and clutches at the thick material as though you were a dog or a mouse getting caught up in her clothes. She shuffles away with a confused look that stays on her face until a young man hands her a tall cup of drink.
Now the innkeeper is looking at you from behind the bar at the back of the room. You have not known many grown-ups so you don’t trust your first impressions of them, but this man looks friendly. He has large blue eyes, a little too close together, and a layer of thin red hairs covering his arms and cheeks the way dust covers shelves. Making your way through the crowds, you decide it would be best to speak to him first.
He never takes his eyes off you as you approach. “Good evenin’… youngster,” he says, then frowns and looks uncomfortable. Maybe he is wondering if you are a boy or a girl. It might be hard to tell, since you are wearing a hood and coat. “I don’t recognise you,” he says, “but I know a tired traveller when I see one. What’s your name?”
You tell him. He nods.
“Are you alone?”
You nod back.
“Well then. We don’t normally have children in the inn, but that’s by the by. Welcome to the Bowman’s Bird.” He looks very upset, this man. He’s thinking about saying something and he’s probably going to say it. You look at him and wait quietly.
Finally he asks, “Where are you parents?” and you tell him that you don’t know. It’s strange, but right now you can’t remember their faces. You have come here without them.
“I see. Well, make yourself comfortable for now. Will you be staying the night?”
You admit that you don’t know that either. For a moment, you can’t think at all. Everything goes fuzzy.
“I’ll get you a drink,” the barman says, turning around. There is a kindness in his voice which seems too genuine for you to doubt him. His bar is neat and tidy, more so than the tables occupied by his customers. “My name’s Alferd,” he says. “I’ve be–”
“I’m looking for the hero who lives here,” you say, interrupting him by mistake.
Alferd turns around to look at you. He seems to relax in that moment, and he dips a small metal cup into a pail of milk. He puts it neatly on the bar in front of you and wipes the side facing away from you.
“You’re looking for Talmir Dragonkiller?” he says.
You smile. That sounds heroic, all right. “When was the last time you saw a dragon?” you ask Alferd.
“I never have, I’m happy to say. No-one has! And that’s all thanks to Talmir.”
You interrupt him again. “Where is Talmir?” You pause. “Please.”
Alferd smiles and pushes the milk toward you. You reach up and grip it and this makes him happy. “Upstairs,” he says, motioning with his eyes and a jerk of his chin. “On the balcony there. He’ll be the gentleman with the axe.”
You sip some of the milk and take it with you as you turn around to follow the man’s eyes. Above the floor of the inn is a long balcony with sturdy doors leading to four bedrooms, but there are a few tables up there too. Some of the townspeople seem to have pushed them all together to make one long table, at the head of which sits a muscular man. His brown beard is split down the middle and knotted in such a complicated way that it looks like it is tied behind his ears. By his side is a solid slab of steel: the cleanest, boldest steel you have ever seen and it shines particularly brightly at the points. A battle-axe. Its silvery light stands out against the browns, reds and blonds of every other object in the room, as though it does not belong. You have to wonder how heavy it is. Probably heavier than you.
Talmir is talking with friends when you reach him and they don’t notice you. Unsure how to get the great man’s attention, you just sip your milk and look at him. The axe is even shinier up close, and his beard is even sillier. You think that trimming and arranging it must take a lot of his time in the mornings.
The big men are excited, talking about a kidnapping that has taken place in town and the villainous bandits who are responsible. The dragon killer is nodding and frowning distantly. It is hard to make-out exactly what has happened, since they are all speaking at once and trying to be heard over one-another, but the word Princess is mentioned at least once. They have worked themselves into a fever, swinging tankards and swapping boasts about how strong they are, or how many heads they will cut off, which ranges from five (from the youngest and thinnest man) to a thousand (the second-youngest and most drunk). Talmir pretends to laugh. Finally he says, “Tomorrow, my friends,” and they calm down. It is obvious that they revere him.
It is now that one of the men bumps into you, and all at once they see you and fall quiet. Five of them stagger backwards, one trips over. You feel their eyes on your face and you wonder what you look like.
“They don’t normally allow children in the Bowman’s…” someone says quietly.
“Speak, child,” says Talmir, but he does not act or sound like a warrior. He is still and bored and unhappy, like a grandfather.
“I have come to see Talmir Dragonkiller,” you say.
“Well done. You’re seeing him now,” says Talmir, and there is laughter. “You aren’t from town. Why are you looking for me?”
It is hard to answer without either seeming stupid or lying. After a moment you just open your mouth and hope that it produces an answer. “I have heard that you are a hero,” you say. No-one laughs.
“Yes.” That’s all he says. The way he forms the word suggests that he has a lot more to say but he has decided not to.
“This man,” says a fellow in a coat of chain mail, slapping his hand on Talmir’s wide shoulder, “is the saviour and protector of the town!”
You nod to show respect.
“He was the last survivor of an expedition to slay the great dragon who threatened the land, ten years ago.”
“Yes,” says Talmir again.
“What say you, boys? Shall we tell the story, aye?”
At this, the men roar and laugh. Out of the corner of your eye you see Talmir whisper something, but only for a second. The man in the mail sits you down and spills a little of your milk.
But before they can begin, Alferd emerges through the crowd behind you and delivers a plate of fresh meat and fruit with a wink. You are grateful and hungry. This seems like a good inn. A good town. It’s nice.
And so you eat while the crowd tell Talmir’s story. Each man recites a verse and you are excited to hear such an epic story told by those people who are closest to the hero himself. His silence, as they speak, makes him seem grand and above you. Not rude, but above you. It is hard not to smile.
“Talmir the Bold was the champion of his village, far to the West,” says an older man with a wispy voice and grey tips to his moustache. A few eyes turn to him. Others still watch you with an assured grin. “His home was like ours: a town that was so far from the Royal Castle that it was only barely under the King’s rule, and very rarely saw anyone from the court. So, like us, his people were simple and fair.”
“And honest, and poor!” says a heavy man. There is loud laughter.
A young member of the group then speaks up and leans on the table. “One day Talmir is out hunting, as the task was often left to him, y’see. And as he spears his last beast of the day he hears the sound of thunder. Of course the thunder doesn’t bother a man like this, so he shrugs it off. But he realises there was no lightning. And then suddenly the thunder sounds again, louder, and again, louder, and the whole sky is suddenly dark as night!”
The tale is gripping you so much that you almost forget about the food you’ve been given. Without looking, you grab some of the meat and shove the whole piece into your mouth, chewing as fast as you can.
“It’s the dragon!” the young man says. “It has arrived from the Heavens in order to destroy us all!”
There is some mumbling around the table, and the greying man mutters, “It was not from the Heavens. Dragons are not from Heaven.”
“Well then it was from a mountain, or the pits of the Earth or a far off continent, or something…” says the other. “Anyway, it was a dragon. Talmir gathered eleven of his most trusted kinsmen, see, and he charged them to follow him into battle. They marched outside the village walls and screamed as one to get the dragon’s attention, then fought it with bow and sword, until it fled. He saved his village!”
“That’s amazing!” you start to say, but you are interrupted by the man in the chain mail.
“Talmir is too much of a hero to let it go, of course!” he says. “So he and his fellowship steeled themselves, packed supplies for a great journey, and set forth to hunt the beast. They follow the trail of flattened trees and burning grassland, and every time they catch up to the filth, it turns to attack them. Every time, they lose a man to its jaws. And every time, they cut a fresh wound through the animal’s scales. In the end, they are exhausted, having battled and withstood the dragon more than any group of warriors ever could, and they lose the rest of their men to wolves and murderers, and a witch. Talmir alone survives, and he slays all these foes by himself even as he keeps up the chase.”
“Finally he…” says a new speaker, a man with a blond beard, but the old man pipes up again.
“Finally, he and the dragon met once again, and found that they were both too fatigued to run any longer. The monster flew straight upwards, as high as the Sun itself, and them slammed its body right back down into the ground, hoping to land on Talmir and pulverise him.”
“But of course…” the man in mail is grinning very deeply and you smell his breath. “Talmir leaps out of the way just in time. He falls helplessly down the great crater that has formed in the ground, no-doubt thinking that he’ll die when he reaches the bottom.”
“And what did you do then, Talmir?” you ask
Talmir does not seem to hear the question, but after a moment of anticipation the blond man hammers the table with his fist and cries, “He grabs hold of its neck and slices it in two with his hunting axe!”
There is a cheer so loud that everyone down below looks up to see what the noise is about. A lot of them smile or even join in.
“Alferd the innkeeper found me,” Talmir finally says, quietly, “on his way back from a visit to a merchant caravan. He dressed my wounds and gave me water, and then he carried me down the path of the Red River, to this, his home town.”
The man in the mail coat asks what you think and you tell the truth. You enjoyed it very much. He is pleased and grasps your shoulder. As you finish your fruit and milk, the men slowly begin to calm down. Their conversation moves to small bragging, and then to mutterings about you, and finally to ordinary town chit-chat. Talmir says very little and does not look at you, so you just finish your meal. When you are done, you hurry downstairs with Alferd’s tray.
As you are climbing down you see him talking to a group of customers at a table in the corner. He has a jug of something, with which he fills their mugs, and they seem to share a joke as one of them kicks the thin skirting board at the bottom of the wall and scratches his shin. You decide to wait by the bar and leave the tray on it.
The bartender breaks away and returns to you almost immediately, and takes the tray gladly. You thank him and he smiles. “You must have travelled a long way, little ‘un,” he says. It makes you laugh out loud when he calls you that, and you worry that you have insulted him, but he just smiles back warmly.
“I think I have,” you say.
He doesn’t pry, but sits down on a stool he has behind the bar and looks at you. “We do have a spare room, little ‘un,” he says. “You can stay there as long as you need to.”
You tell him that you don’t have any gold coins, but he calmly tells you that you won’t need any. You thank him again.
“No need for that, either,” he says, and offers you another drink. You shake your head.
“How long have you known Talmir?” you ask.
Alferd pours some milk for himself as he answers. “Since he arrived,” he says. “He stays here. I had three rooms to rent before the dragon killer arrived. Now I have two rooms, and the honour and safety that only a hero’s presence can offer.”
You ask what Talmir is like.
“Like you see,” Alferd says, simply. “He’s grand and he’s quiet. Respectable.”
“Did he really save the land from the dragon?”
“The dragon’s skeleton is still out there to the North, where it cracked the Earth and made its last stand,” he says. The innkeeper’s eyes drop to the bar and he starts wiping at a stain you can’t see.
“He must be brave,” you say.
Alferd’s smile widens and he steps away from the bar, walks out into the middle of the inn. Pointing back up at the balcony, he tells you that your room will be the one right at the end. He says it is small, but then so are you, little’un. And you laugh politely. With a chuckle he wanders off toward a hand, waving at him from another table.
Upstairs you see Talmir shuffle back and forth in his chair. Nobody else seems to be watching him right now so he keeps shuffling for almost a minute. When he is tired of this, he gets up. He slowly wanders over to the window at the end of the balcony and then rests his head against the glass. Without thinking you jump up the stairs and go over to talk to him. There are little bits of bread in that beard of his, and his eyes seem larger now.
“Talmir, what happened next?” you ask.
He looks at you, frowning a little, the way an ordinary person would look at a piece of fruit in a market. “They have… embellished the story a bit,” he mutters. “What happened after that was that I recovered here, and I sat in that chair over there and told my story to the townsfolk. And then they told me I was their hero. A lot.”
“Yes,” you agree.
“And I said nothing, and they gave me food and a ceremonial axe to replace the old, blunted one I used to carry. They do not ask me to work.”
You move a little closer to hear him better, and ask, “When will you return to your village?”
After a long pause he sighs and says, “There are other wolves out there. There are other witches. And dragons, perhaps. My little friend, I cannot go home.” He sounds weary and has begun to slur his words.
“You have eleven new companions!” you tell him, looking at the others.
“Yes, but who’s to say that on the way back, I will be the one who survives, hm?”
You don’t have an answer, so the two of you just stare at each other for a while. Eventually he coughs.
“I have never used this axe,” he says. “I ran a long way, and I survived.”
You nod, but you feel strangely empty. “What about the kidnapped Princess?”
Talmir breathes through his nose and says, “There are knights in the kingdom, child. They can do the job better. And these men here will be sober tomorrow. I will not remind them of their boasting.”
“You’re… you’re not going to fight the bandits?”
Talmir doesn’t move at all and just says, “A hero can be any man, little one. Whichever man is left at the end of a journey. The only one who didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice.”
“Oh,” you reply.
The man who killed the dragon nods and closes his eyes. You slink away, climb down the stairs and pass the empty bar, forgetting all about the room you were offered. Hurrying away from this place you push the inn doors open again. They seem even heavier this time.
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