Kingdom Burning

Three years after King Roen burned her village to the ground and killed everyone she held dear, Taryn had finally made a new life for herself working in a wayward tavern. She might have almost been happy again, had the nightmares not come back to haunt her. When two strangers come to the inn on one fateful night, Taryn discovers that the nightmares are only the beginning.

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1. Chapter 1

 

Shadows crept through the emptying streets of Glynn, chasing away the sun. The cloaked stranger found the shadows comforting, taking advantage of the coming darkness as he dodged past the villagers and merchants finishing up the day’s business. The air reeked of excitement for the coming harvest festival and the prospect of revelry in the wake of his own misery took a sharp jab at the man’s already sour mood.

Scowling openly he surveyed the town’s only street in search of an alehouse so as he might find a stout drink to sooth his aching body and battered pride. He had been traveling for weeks without rest, wandering from village to village in search of someone who had had three years to erase any trace of her existence.

The stranger turned his thoughts malevolently to Aradelle, the shade whose vague visions had prompted his search. A surge of bitterness swelled suddenly in the pit of his stomach. She was the one that lost track of the girl and yet he was the one who must find her. It fit, he supposed, for he was nothing more to her than a tool that she could dispose of on a whim. The bitterness surged again, not so much at Aradelle but himself.  He had made the choice in the beginning. And even if he could do it again, the stranger was not sure he would change it.

“Fool,” he growled, sinking further in his funk.

His body ached miserably – the unfortunate result of an encounter with a band of vagrants. As his journey neared an end, the stranger had become careless in his travels - and a lone, distracted Blue and Gold soldier became an easy target for those who rebelled against the king’s tyranny. The rogues had been waiting for him, and if not for his quick thinking - well, they would have tried to kill him…

“Stupid,” he muttered, glowering at his self-wrought misfortunes and detaching himself from the unpleasant memory.  Quickly scanning his surroundings, the cloaked man slowed his steps, closing the distance between him and the inn. Stopping just to the side of the solid wood doors he peered up at the decrepit sign dangling from its signpost: Mama Jynn’s Eatery and Inn. The stranger cursed quietly, pulling his cloak tighter around his shoulders despite the summer heat. He didn’t care for a relapse of the day’s earlier events.

The boisterous din of a crowd burst suddenly into the street as the door opened and a young man stepped into the dusk and away from the tavern. The stranger stared moodily at the hesitating door, its rusted hinges protesting the sudden test of strength. Then, unassuming as he could, the man slipped through the open door just before it shut.

The interior of the inn and ale house was dark, lit only by a handful of dingy candle sconces and one low hanging chandelier in the middle of the room. A weathered armchair and numerous stools of varying size and shape had been arranged on a thick wool rug near the soot-blackened fireplace in the corner. Half a dozen long tables filled most of the room, accompanied by benches that sagged under the weight of six or eight men apiece. A short counter piled with empty tankards lined the far wall of the tavern next to a heavy curtain that likely hid the kitchen from view. A tavern maiden filled a mug at one of the dozen ale barrels that lined another wall, while a large woman sloshed a dirty rag into one of the tankards on the counter, grinning to herself as she glanced towards a burly man in the middle of the room as his audience broke into raucous laughter and guffaws.

The man scowled, resenting their good humor in comparison of his own ill temper. Annoyed with himself for lingering so long in the doorway, he quickly made his way to a dark table near one of the shuttered windows. With a quick glance around the room he found that no one save the large woman at the counter seemed to have noticed his entrance and that suited him fine. In a brief exchange he had an ale in his hand and the innkeeper a copper in hers. Left alone with his brooding thoughts, the stranger leaned back against the wall and took a long pull of ale, savoring the bitterness of the brew. Closing his eyes, he relaxed for the first time in weeks and with another long swallow his aches seemed to dim slightly. Before long the ale was gone, and catching the eye of the innkeeper, he signaled for another.

***

“Jynn, a round of ale for m'boys!” a stout man named Janny called over the tavern commotion, hailing cheers of approval from those at his table.

Across the room, the tubby lady behind the counter whipped a towel over her shoulder and crossed her arms sarcastically. “There’s the barrels,” she grumbled crossly, shrugging to the wall stacked to the ceiling with ale. “Pour ‘em yourself!” The room broke out in coarse laughter and the hostess signaled to a young woman who swept up an armload of well-used tankards. She walked among the tables dodging tipsy customers and wandering hands with practice skill, bestowing random winks and smiles upon the gentlemen of the eatery as she went.

Smiling slyly as she approached the blacksmith’s table the girl passed mugs to everyone but him. “Janny,” she cooed, sticking out her hip and dangling his tankard carelessly from one finger, “You know you’ll be charged double for the whole lot if you break this tankard.”

Grinning malevolently Janny thrust out a dirty hand towards the mug. Taryn lifted it easily out of his reach, laughing as his over-enthusiastic grab nearly tipped him backwards onto the floor. Janny’s mates rolled with laughter, a couple of them doing rather accurate reenactments for the rest, which naturally lead to another round of laughter. Janny merely shrugged nonchalantly and leaned back with his hands casually behind his head. Taryn, who was still holding the mug out of his reach, lowered it warily, putting on a façade of slight boredom.

Then in a sudden movement Janny swept Taryn into his lap with one burly arm while nabbing the tankard out of her hand with the other.  Whooping triumphantly, he slammed it down on the table, scattering a cloud of dust around it. “You know I do it just for spite,” he mocked, running a finger down Taryn’s bare shoulder.

“Spite or not,” she retorted, nudging his hand away and standing up. “I’ll still charge you double.” Janny followed her with his fingers, but she slapped them away playfully and then leaned in so their noses were merely a few inches apart. “Janny, you know this is an eatery, not a pleasure house.” Taryn traced a teasing finger down his bristled jaw. “ Besides, what would your dear wife think?”

The table erupted in a plume of dust as all five of Janny’s gang hammered their tankards appreciatively on the table, making such a ruckus other customers in the eatery were beginning to stare. Pointedly Janny stood up, his face screwed up somewhere between amusement and reluctant acknowledgment of the truth in her statement. The rest of the men rose from their seats started towards the ale barrels, still laughing loudly over Janny’s repelled advances.

“Fine, fine,” he conceded, “You’ve proven your point.” He wrapped an arm around Taryn’s shoulders. “Still, you can’t blame me for trying!”

“Try all you like, but it still won’t get you anywhere,” Taryn said earnestly, glancing over her shoulder to the ale barrels. “You better hurry. Jake’ll have the ale gone before you get any.” Grinning, she shoved Janny in that direction, smacking him on the rump as he went.

“Ah, Taryn,” the one called Jake called from the ale drums. “I ain’t even filled my cup yet.”

“Your cups only empty because you already emptied it. And the second one isn’t on Janny neither. That’ll be another copper.”

Janny clapped Jake on the back, laughing merrily as the men filed back to the table.

“Taryn–” Janny began, interrupting himself with a deep swallow of ale, “Why do you call this place an eatery anyway? I ain’t never seen a scrap of food on the floor for the rats.”

“You’ll have to take that up with Mama Jynn. Its not like you’ve ever wanted any thing but ale anyway,” she mused, stepping aside as Mama Jynn shuffled up to the table looking surly as ever.

“I call it an eatery ‘cuz a tavern’s a nasty place and I like a little good word under my name,” she bellowed, wiping her hands on the filthy apron bulging around her waste.

“This place is as much a tavern as I’ve ever seen, no matter what you call it,” Janny remarked, banging his tankard with the others at the table before taking another drink.

“Well it don’t matter what I call it so long as I got me a business. Now, caugh up your coppers or I’ll dump your ale.” The innkeeper thrust a thickset hand towards Janny’s half-full tankard. He pulled it away quickly and dove for the deerskin pouch at his waist. With a devilish grin he proudly dumped two newly pressed silvers into the dust, each landing with a gray-clouded, heavy thud.

The display gained the effect he had been going for as appreciative remarks issued from around him. “Where in the world did you find those, Janny? Steal them from the king did you?” a man named Boggs cackled from the other end of the table. The men leaned in from all directions to get a closer look as Janny launched into one of his notorious tales. Jynn, however, reached in, swept the coins unceremoniously from the table and followed Taryn back to the bar. 

The young girl scanned the room from one end to the other, checking for ales to be filled and smiling at Janny’s advances. Ring leader of the regulars he always insisted on making a scene, though in three years it hadn’t gotten him anywhere. It was more of a game now—something to keep the customers laughing and giving up their pennies for a pint of ale. Away from the commotion, she felt her spirits sinking slightly, the fatigue of last night’s restless dreams setting in. Taryn sighed and resigned herself to wiping down the used ale mugs that lined the counter.

Across the room a cloaked man the girl didn’t recognize signaled for another drink and Mama Jynn left the bar with a fresh tankard. Taryn laughed softly as she watched the innkeeper barge across the room in her usual distemper. Taryn had a feeling that the woman gained a good deal of satisfaction and amusement in the reactions her façade returned to her. Just as Taryn returned her attention to the task at hand Janny appeared in front of her and she jumped, startled by his sudden appearance. The burly man snickered heartily, waving his empty tankard and another copper at her with a crooked toothed grin. The girl shook her head with amusement and shrugged him towards the barrels. Leaving the copper on the edge of the counter, Janny proceeded to his target with a certain self-inflated swagger to his step that spurred a burst of laughter from Taryn and an annoyed grunt from Mama Jynn who had just returned. She snatched up Janny’s copper, which still lay untouched on the counter, and dumped it haphazardly into the drawer with a handful of others.

Janny was nearly back to his table when the inn door opened, letting in a rush of fresh air. The room quieted expectantly, the usual commotion reduced to mere murmurs scattered with small jolts of laughter. Eyes followed the newcomer from every corner of the room as he made his way to an empty seat at the table next to Janny and his gang.  Taryn, knowing the game, made her way quickly towards him. The stranger glanced warily around him as she approached, uncomfortably aware of the many eyes that had followed him to his seat. She couldn’t help but smile as she watched the locals avert their gaze only long enough avoid being caught staring—a pointless endeavor, really, she though to herself, holding back a fit of laughter. 

Taryn approached the table with a sweet smile on her face, inviting the man to make his request from the bar. The entire room was silent, and Taryn could see from the corner of her eye many of the men leaning forward in expectation. They no longer attempted to hide their staring. The stranger at the table met the girl’s eyes in a sudden movement and for the slightest moment, bumps appeared on her arms. His eyes were blue as the bluest sky she had ever seen, vibrant even in the shadow of his oversized, weathered hat.

He spoke abruptly, looking down at the table. “Boiled pork and cabbage, or whatever you may have that resembles it.” His voice was unexpectedly rich for one so worn in appearance, and it took a second longer than usual for everyone to react. Jake, who was leaning across Janny’s table, abruptly lost his balance and knocked over his tankard, sending it clanging to the floor and splashing those closest to him with ale as it went. Laughter burst out across the room as everyone seemed to remember quite suddenly the joke that they had been playing on the man.

Janny climbed over the top of his table and slammed his tankard down in front of the somewhat bewildered stranger. “You ain’t gonna get good eats here—just good ale!” The room exploded with laughter once again as echoes of the blacksmith’s statement rounded the room. The man looked up at Taryn, his eyes reflecting the slightest bit of amusement, though a heavy weariness lay there as well. The tavern maiden shrugged her shoulders playfully and winked.

All together the man’s reaction to the jest was minimal. Though one wouldn’t go as far to call it a smile, the corners of the man’s lips twitched a little bit as he reached for the ale and lifted the tankard into the air in simple acknowledgement of the men’s joke. It wouldn’t be much to assume that most weary travelers who entered the tavern received a similar experience, and he had to give them some credit for finding amusement in such a thing. But he supposed they didn’t receive much entertainment this far north in Reseda. What harm would it do to play along with their games? Letting the smile creep a little further along his lips, the man took a long swallow – longer than he usually would, but it would appease his audience at least.

His ready acceptance of the drink aroused another round of cheers and laughter which led immediately into a hasty and slightly chaotic distribution of fresh tankards to the majority of the crowd. When Taryn reached the newcomer she smiled, saying “On me,” as she handed him a tankard. He tipped his weathered hat appreciatively but set the mug on the table without taking a drink.

With the room’s attention elsewhere, the man had taken on a rather somber demeanor, all traces of amusement departed from his eyes and lips. He traced his finger carelessly along the rim of the tankard, his gaze burning into the table as if his thoughts were leagues away.

Janny’s bellow rang out across the room, drawing the scattered interest of the men back to the matter at hand. Taking a quick pull from the tankard that had replaced the one he gave away, the blacksmith took a seat at the traveler’s table. Jake and Boggs filled the remaining seats leaving the rest of the men to stand around them, vying for a good view of their guest.

“So, you got a name traveler?”

It appeared that the man had not heard Janny’s booming voice. He remained silent for a strained moment in which perplexed glances made their way from one villager to the next as they tried to imagine anyone not hearing Janny’s voice. The man’s sudden movement caught everyone off guard as he reached up, removed his hat and set it on the table, revealing dark, gray-streaked hair that drooped around his aged countenance. And with that simple gesture, he had everyone in the room’s rapt attention. Still he didn’t speak. Instead his eyes roved through the crowd, his expression unreadable yet so intriguing that the men automatically leaned in closer.

Taryn, who sat in her usual spot atop the counter, realized abruptly that the traveler had yet to say a word since he first arrived, and she smiled in spite of herself. This one was a skilled storyteller. She glanced at Mama Jynn who had made the same discovery and was sitting on the edge of the counter with an eager grin on her face. The newcomer was going to make this  a wonderful opening to the harvest festival.

“Ah,” the man said softly, raising one silver eyebrow. “You would know my name? A fine question indeed. I think you might find that names are a deal of importance this harvest eve, though mine least of all.” He looked down at the table again, this time running his finger along the brim of his hat. Around him, the men of the eatery had forgotten themselves, mouths gaping at the man who had so casually caught them completely off guard.

No one said anything, all eyes on the stranger and Taryn had to commend the man – seeing Janny speechless was a treat in itself. And she could only begin to imagine the tales that might be woven before the night’s end. Unperturbed by the silence his introduction had inspired, the traveler took a long, contemplative drink of ale. His gaze left the table as he swallowed, meeting and holding the gazes of those closest to him. Then, as he set the tankard down again he smiled.

Somehow it was not a smile to ease the tension creasing the room. A heavy weariness lay in the way his muscles moved – hesitant as though they had not been used in ages. The men around him began to shift uneasily, still speechless as they began to realize what a treasure they had come upon.

It was a gentle laugh from the strange man that finally broke the trance. Hands reached quickly for their forgotten ales and the traveler raised his own to them, still smiling that disheartening smile. 

“Aye lads, if you must have a name to satisfy your curiosities of a lonely wanderer, you may call me Gerral,” the stranger said abruptly, projecting his strong voice to be sure everyone in the room could hear him.

At last Janny spoke, taking the last pull of his ale and sighing heavily before he began. “It sounds like you have a tale to tell, good Gerral.” The villagers echoed his words with scattered agreements, watching the one called Gerral intently.

He nodded solemnly, retrieving his hat from the table and placing it back on his head. “I bring a tale that may seem unbelievable—unnatural even, as the line of our daily reality becomes blurred with forgotten myths. I bid you take it as you will, be it the simple musings of a wandering old fool or the terrifying truth of what may lie in the days ahead.

“We can all remember the trying hours of Reseda’s darkest nights when villages were burned, families murdered, lives destroyed. It was a time that no one would want to relive even in their worst nightmares. Those of us who survived it are haunted by the memories of the life that we lost for reasons that we may never understand. We live everyday trying to forget—to  continue on with the belief that someday we will find peace again in our hearts and souls.”

Gerral paused and took a slow pull of ale without looking at his audience. He let the introduction hang in the air like a pendulum at its peak, enjoying a grim satisfaction in the awe surrounding him. It was always the more remote villages that seemed to appreciate his tales more – always so eager for something different from the daily monotony. The corners of his mouth twitched again as the big man they called Janny shifted in his seat, obviously thinking very hard on he was about to say, or probably whether he should say anything at all. Gerral waited.

“Aye, me,” Janny blurted to no one in particular. All eyes turned to him, and the gruff blacksmith’s expression fell a little.  His lack of words appeared to baffle him as much as it did his compatriots. Across the room Taryn giggled softly, enjoying the brute’s condition. Then he let out a slightly overenthusiastic hoot and elbowed Jake in the ribs, causing the poor man to slosh another ale all over the table. “It seems to me, good fellow, that what you tell is more than just a tale for hungry ears. Please continue.  You have our rapt attention,” said the blacksmith, finally finding his tongue again. He raised his ale high in solute and the men hastily followed his lead, encouraging the story to continue without hesitation.

Gerral nodded once and began again. “The road of a weary traveler ends often with a stout ale in hand. It is how I find myself here among you men, just as I found myself among those of Langlas not shy of a week ago. It was a day much like today, the spirit of harvest heavy in the air, the sun high and warm in the sky. No one had a care in the world save drinking away the days aches and blunders.  I had just taken up a seat in the tavern when they came. The tavern master,  Alvar was just passing me a drink as the door opened. When he saw the man, his expression changed instantaneously. Brow furrowed. Jaw grinding. Fists clenched.

“All eyes turned to the newcomer with much the same reaction. It was to be expected, really. Blue and Gold tend to have that effect on people. Their reputation precedes them in even the smallest of Reseda’s settlements, memories of those long weeks of flame-ridden destruction far to fresh to be set aside.

“The soldier stood alone in the doorway with the air of a man who thinks his presence should be impressive. He was oblivious to the hostility that greeted his arrival.   

“Alvar leaned heavily on the bar. ‘Speak maggot, and be done with it,’ he growled.

 

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