By Gerry Torbert
The first, irrefutable evidence that he wanted to do the tall, bulky Creag personal damage was the thrusting of the short, dull saorlan 1 toward the soft part of his throat. The sloppy attention to detail and to the basic teachings of blacksmithing used to fabricate such crude weaponry gave Darmon a particularly sour taste in his mouth. He had seen lousy swords such as this on the battlefield, and a good strike from a claymore or even a shorter sword would break them in two. But this was the preferred tool of the casan slaidear2, the highwaymen who lay in wait for defenseless travelers. An inexpensive piece of iron junk, bought for a wink and tossed aside at a whim, it was a special piece used mostly at night - sometimes even called a Dwardaenocht Special. In the right hands it could deal some damage.
But the right hand was attached to a six-foot, six-inch Creag. It snapped upward instinctively, clasping the last five inches of the blade in a cup of the fingers, keeping them from touching the sharpened edges. With a swing of his arm and a slight dodge to the right, he brought his elbow up and across his body, pulling downward with his hand and breaking the blade with a dull snap. ...It doesn't even sound like steel when it breaks... cheap, isn't it, Slayer...? The six-foot sword strapped to his back thought back, answering with a laugh ...I'll let you take care of this...
Darmon flicked the remainder of the blade to the side with his wrist, then back-fisted the robber with a resounding thud. He was out, much like the sack of potatoes the thin, older farmer had over his left shoulder, as he clutched his wife with his other arm. She huddled her two children near her as the tongue of the cart they were pushing from the market in Zel City fell to the ground and rolled a few feet away. The shorter of the other two still-conscious robbers moved quickly to the old man's side, pointing his sword to his neck. "This ain't yer business, barbarian. Jus' get along, or I'll split the ol' man in two!"
The second thief looked at Darmon and smiled, pointing his sword at him. "Ya heard 'im, hero. Get outa here, or we'll make short work of this pretty little family!" He stood half a head above Darmon, with a good fifty pounds of additional persuasion flopping from his untrained triceps and billowing out over his straining belt.
Darmon cringed at the reference to barbarism - just who was the barbarian here? He smiled and slumped his shoulders in feigned submission, nodding his lowered head. "Yea, mon, guess ya got me there. Sorry 'bout yer buddy there, he'll wake up. But I'll make ya a deal." He stepped back a few feet and pulled Slayer slowly from his scabbard ...what the hell are you doing... "Ya see this fine weapon? Bigger 'n better than that crap yer holdin, by far. Ya could sell it for more'n you'll get from that cart, mates!"
The bigger thief shook his sword at Darmon. "Ya'd better put 'at back, mister!"
Darmon held up his hand to calm both he and his companion, who was threatening the old man more vigorously. He plunged Dragonslayer into the soft colluvium along the trail and stepped away. "Tell ye wha... I'll make ye a deal... no sword, ya let the family go, ya can have it if ye can beat me... I use just me 'ands, ye can use yer own swords... whadd'ya say?"
The highwaymen looked at each other nervously. The shorter one, who seemed to be the leader, nodded and walked to the side, away from the old man. The bigger man walked to the other side, flanking the Creag.
...do you always have to do things so dramatically?... what if they get lucky?... you know, it's me you're gambling with, our destiny...
Darmon ignored the sword. The larger man struck first. He rushed forward, reaching back to thrust his sword at Darmon. The Creag watched the other man out of the corner of his eye - he seemed to hold back - and watched as the sword came forward. Unfortunately, the thief was holding it flat, making it difficult to deflect outward. Fortunately, the oaf was operating with about the same level of intelligence as those potatoes. Darmon came up with his left arm, slapping the blade upward. He was easily able to use the attacker's momentum against him and executed a perfect shoulder throw, holding on to his hands and wrenching the sword from his grasp.
The robber landed with a thud, both legs out and on either side of Dragonslayer. A ripping sound came from his crotch, and as the stun of his landing subsided, he looked to the sword. His face went pale and he gasped, thinking his injury was so severe he didn't even feel his organs being removed by the unfortunate fall inches away from the sword. But he saw no blood and realized the sound was just his clothes ripping on Dragonslayer's trefoil hilt, a sizeable piece of the ragged muslin hanging from it. He chuckled and looked up in time to see Darmon bringing the hilt of his own sword down on his forehead. Darmon slugged the fat head just hard enough to send him to a deep sleep.
The other man was stunned, seeing his partner so easily defeated. He crouched and held the sword out, looking nervously toward the family. Darmon quickly moved to a position between the two, cutting off another potential hostage situation. He said over his shoulder, "Old man, go back ta Zel - it's just a mile back - send some guards ta put this trash in jail. Run now, sir, don't worry about your family." The old man took off for the city.
The thief's eyes grew wide in anticipation. He started to rush forward, but Darmon plucked Slayer from the ground and held him out, ceasing his advance. The thief stopped in time to stare down the length of some real blacksmithing. He stood motionless - Darmon had him. "I thought you said you was gonna leave yer sword outa dis!"
Darmon smiled. "Ye know, laddie, I did say that... 'ere..." He flipped the sword up in an arc, catching the sharpened end in his hands. The move appeared to the thief as if he was throwing it away, and he charged again. Just far enough for his head to meet a powerful swing of Slayer, as the hilt whacked his head into unconsciousness. "I meant I wouldn't use the blade, fool!"
He looked to the woman and children. "Is everyone a'right? Y'know, ye shouldn't be walkin' this road in th' evening. 'elp me tie'm up for the guards, will ya please?"
They bound the highwaymen together and tied the three to a tree, finishing just as the father and the guards arrived on horseback. He recognized one of the guards as one who tied him in chains just hours ago. The guard was surprised and nodded to him. "You're havin' quite a day, Mr. Stuart."
The old man and his wife looked at the Creag agape. "Darmon Stuart? Of Creagland?"
Darmon laughed a little. "Yea, word spreads, it seems. If the guards would be kind enou ta take the trash ta jail, I'll walk ya to yer 'ouse. There might be a few more o' these along the road!"
Darmon enjoyed the company of the family as he accompanied them to their farmhouse. He pushed the cart most of the way, giving the children a thrill ride over the bumps and down the hills and eventually going slower as they fell asleep. He wondered to himself if he had what it takes to be a father. He had often felt the yearning to settle and have a family before his possible ascent to the position of Clan Leader. Now, he wondered if such a thing were possible. Dragonslayer remained strangely silent.
The parents asked many questions of him and of his travels, which were gaining a status of legend. He averted much of the grisly details and anything to do with the curse, as the family had been through too much to be burdened with that. As they approached the farm, they asked him in, but he refused, citing more highwaymen who needed his attention. The truth was that he didn't think they would understand his lack of sleep, and he really did want to get home. He saw them to the door, helped carry the children to bed and accepted a meager half-loaf of bread and a dried fish fillet for the road. He could see they had little else, but knew they would be hurt if he took nothing. As his feet hit the hard-packed dusty road again, he looked up to the moon, which was a waning crescent. Just the fact that it wasn't full made him feel safe.
Mid morning sun greeted him as he approached Keller. A fair-sized town, it had a warmer feeling than Zel City and a bit of hustle on the streets. Along with the newly-founded Hestor, it represented the furthest reaches of Zeland's influence in the wild northwest. He stopped at the first watering hole he saw, an old, stately building. The sign over the door said The Lost Fish, most likely a faint tribute to the town's healthy freshwater fishing trade. Most of the surrounding hills were full of salmon runs, and the addition of logging trade gave rise to a healthy economy. Many of the fishermen from Loch Dol drove their wagonloads here to be sold, eventually ending in some of the fine inns in Zel. He had been here before, and he liked the town and its people.
Darmon entered the inn and looked around for a seat at the tables. He chose to belly up to the bar, however, and motioned to the host. "Would ya 'ave somethin' ta wash doon the dust from the road, sir?"
The bartender was cleaning up from the breakfast crowd. Several fishers, complete with hooks hanging from their thick leather vests and babying ales, looked his way, but just cursorily, as they returned to their drinks. "We got ale, milk, water, tea. That's about it, Mr. Stuart."
Darmon shook his head. They apparently had heard of him here. He had hoped to escape notoriety, but it seemed to trail him everywhere he went. "Milk, I guess. Good for the bones, they say."
The bartender smiled and nodded. "At least, I assume yer a Stuart. I got a good eye for the plaids. Lotsa you Creags come here, sellin' fish. Am I right?"
Darmon breathed a little easier and felt inwardly embarrassed. Not that he wanted to be famous, or did he? Maybe he should just enjoy relative anonymity for a while. "Yea, 'at's it, lad. Makin' me way ta Slaughbaetha, got a way ta go. Good eye."
He slid the tankard of milk along the polished wood. Darmon caught it with a sweep of his hand and tasted it. The white moustache it left and the smack of his lips let the bartender know it was appreciated. "Long trip so far?"
"Yea, a month or two, dunna jus' how long - it all runs togetha when yer 'avin fun, I guess."
"Comin' back from the battles? I guessed from the size of that thing hangin' on yer back - don't look like any fishin' rod I ever seen."
Darmon took another swig. "Like I say, ya got a good eye. Fought in the Deadlands battle, then been makin' me way back. Can't jus' come 'ome, ya know. Ya got to give it all some time ta get out o' yer system." He wasn't sure where this conversation was taking him. He had such with three bartenders, and two of them were dead within hours. So far, this one's head hadn't turned into a flaming ball, so he was pleased...so far.
But the keeper nodded and went over to answer one of the fishermen's request for a refill. It didn't seem that he would explode into flames, and a quick look around told the Creag there wasn't an old man lurking in the shadows. As a matter of fact, everyone seemed to ignore him, tending to their own business, their own discussions. The tender returned. "Anything else?"
Darmon finished his milk. "Yea, got half a dozen eggs, some bacon, bread, more milk, the works? Got a way ta go, lad."
The bartender smiled. "That's what I like to hear." He tilted his head back to the room behind the bar. "Sooky, dirt an' sweat, six eyes, make 'em squeal an' swim!" He turned back. "That'll do it. She's a good woman, cooks a good meal. Good looker, too. Just enough ta marry 'er, is what I did. 'At's why this is the best inn in town." He noticed Darmon's quizzical look. "Oh, make 'em swim...this is fish town, fella. Slab o' salmon tops the eggs." Darmon smiled and nodded. He liked this place.
As the bartender paid some attention to his other clients, Darmon walked about the room and looked at the pictures on the walls. Most of them were of Creags, painted haphazardly in cheap oils, but Darmon was amazed at the liveliness, the human nature, the sincerity of them. There was a group of Duffs, in their raucous blue-and-orange plaids, standing around a man who looked very familiar. Another was a Lewis in his dusty Great Kilt of brown and tan, holding an oar, beside the same man. A third was of a Connor family in their green and red - a woman in her highland dress, a husband and two children, all holding strings of fish. Once again, the man was in the picture.
He turned to the bar, hearing the sizzling of the meal, and looked at the bartender. He was the man in the pictures. As he approached, he smiled and pointed over his shoulder. "Sooky the artist?"
He slid the plates and mug across the wood as Darmon reached for a gold coin. "Good eye. She's got an instant memory - painted most of them after just looking at us for a few minutes. Another reason ta marry her. I'm kind of a historian, ya might say. Been talkin' ta Creags all my life. Know every battle, every change of clan leadership over the past fifty years. Don't have a Stuart yet, that is, until now. Whadya say?"
Darmon laughed as he began to dig into the huge breakfast. "Why not? I'd be honored. I'd like to meet this wife o' yers." He slid the coin across the bar.
"Ewin's the name. Ewin MacDuff. I'll get yer change." "Keep it, lad." Ewin smiled. "Sooky, got a minute?"
Sooky came out, taking off the leather apron. She was a lithe woman, slim but strong, her skin white and lightly wrinkled from the constant work at the inn. But she had a positive walk and a composure about her that seemed to speak of great talent and insight. She smiled and looked at Ewin.
"Sooky, I have another picture for you to do. Forget about work, I'll help out later. Mr. Stuart here would be a fine subject. Whaddya say?"
Sooky looked him over, walking around the bar as he ate. Ewin frowned and began to scold her for leering, but she explained, "Now Ewin, you know I have to study the subject!" Darmon felt as if he was being undressed and feigned uneasiness for Ewin's sake. "Hmmm...Okay, Mr. Stuart. Finish your breakfast. I hope it's to your liking. I'll get my oils." She hurried back to the room.
Darmon continued to eat. "Fine woman ya 'ave, Ewin. Ya done well."
Ewin nodded. "So, have ya heard of the goings-on in Creagland, last couple o' months? Appears there's a lot of fighting goin' on. Stuarts - your people - havin' some land feud with the McLeods; the Campbells and Donalds goin' at it, as always, but this time there was some open hostilities; Connors are sidin' with the Donalds; Tavishes are sidin' with the Campbells."
"All of 'em are talkin' about marchin' south ta Zel City an' makin' it all Creagland. It's like it's always been, I guess. Constant fightin' amongst themselves over clan stuff. Never been able ta mass enough force ta fight Zeland, 'cause they can't agree on anything. Seems a shame. I wouldn't mind a new government in Zel City. They've got too much influence from Farland, too many officials and military from over there."
Darmon nodded as he ate. Many folks from the border towns understood the importance the unruly and turbulent buffer was to Zeland, although at times it seemed not to be worth the effort to the southern kingdom. Ever since the unsuccessful unifying battles of 5982, three short years after Zeland and Orland seceded from Farland, Creagland had had to swear begrudging fealty to Zel City. It was evident during the civil war that the clan system engrained in the lives of Creags was a huge obstacle when it came time to go to war.
The loose arrangement of family structures posed more organizational woes to an army than could be overcome by even the strongest of leaders. Economically it worked well, but militarily it was a bust. And with the smothering tax burden imposed by Zeland, Creagland was kept poor. There was little one could do for wealth but to raise livestock, cultivate the land, fish, and fight for hire. And fight amongst themselves. It was once said, "If the Creags could point their swords in the same direction at the same time, they would rule the world."
Darmon finished the last of his eggs and meat and began to attack the soft white loaf of bread that begged his attention. Seeing this, Ewin unwaxed a ceramic jar and slid it to him. "No bread is worth the trouble without tasting my heather-apple marmalade, friend. You'll never want another jelly again, I promise you." Darmon spread the yellow gel on a slice and nodded agreement as Sooky arranged her easel and palette.
Ewin took the plates and wiped off the bar as Darmon turned to watch Sooky set up. She began with sweeping strokes of a broad brush, mixing different hues and colors to get the feel of the room. She quickly painted a perfect representation of the old, ill-fitting boards that made up the creaky floor of the inn as a background. Darmon was fascinated by her abilities and her eye. "Good, ain't she?" asked Ewin, and Darmon nodded.
"That was the easy part. Now, Mr. Stuart, I want you to stand right here..." she said, as she directed him and placed a chair to one side. "Ewin, you sit here, sideways, Mr. Stuart, you lean on the chair, look relaxed...no, that won't do..." She fiddled around, positioning them with Ewin at Darmon's right. "No, more relaxed...you look like you're waiting on someone...be yourself..." She looked them over, her hand holding her elbow, the other hand on her chin, rubbing it, thinking. She looked to Darmon's left, frowning at something, then turned back.
She then stood back and thought for a minute, her hands on her hips, while Darmon strove to look natural. ...harder than it looks, Slayer...I'd rather be in some battle somewhere than stay in one place for a long time...but the sword didn't answer - he seemed hesitant, cautious, strangely so - but Darmon didn't have time to ask, he was too busy trying to relax.
"That's it! Right there! Don't move a muscle, any of you! I need to look this over for a few minutes, sketch it in, then you can all go, and I'll paint it." She began to feverishly draw outlines on the canvas, and after five minutes of what Darmon thought was torture, she drew a deep breath. "Alright, I guess I can't expect everyone to remain still, but this will do. I have it now, just go on about your business, I'll be done in an hour or so."
Darmon stepped forward, but she scolded, "No peeking! It's bad luck!" He raised his hands and stepped back. He'd rather be fighting somewhere than to raise her ire. He walked back to the bar as Ewin walked around it to continue his job. After a while he returned and apologized for his wife's brusque exterior. Y' know, she's very territorial when it comes to her painting. She doesn't mean anything by it."
Darmon nodded. "I know, I understan' - all great minds run in different directions. Some people have ta have everythin' right, 'cause they're driven by perfection. Tis a good thing, lad. Ya dunna want a room full'o average pictures. She takes pride in 'er cookin' as well. So, tell me, what'ya 'eard aboot Slaughbaetha an' Fuachdlaimrig? What's the fighin' aboot, now?"
Ewin filled Darmon's mug with a little more milk and poured himself one as well. "Seems the McLeod's are claimin' some rights over the land south of Abhain Aird, the North River, sayin' it's McLeod territory. Way I gather, it's been Slaughbaetha territory since the clans first divvied up the land, but now, with the power vacuum..."
Darmon stopped mid-drink. "What power vacuum? Uilliam's been the clan leader for years! What happened, man?"
Ewin stammered. "I-I thought...you knew! Uilliam took sick a month back, just keeled over, they don't know what happened. He's alive, and that wizard, uh...name escapes me now..."
"Yeah, that's it - Faugas - well, he's been runnin' the show, an' Uilliam's brother Eohn hasn't been takin' the reins, they say he doesn't want it. Guess the McLeods figured now is as good a time as any ta make a stink about the land. I don't know, is that land that important?"
Darmon nodded. "Sure is. The river's been meanderin' all over those high hills for hundreds o' years, makin' the land fertile, an' we've been farmin' it an' fishin' our side. It forms the border 'tween us an' them, but also with the Caembuhls an' Lewises. But I dunna know why Eohn wouldn't take over, unless somethin'..." He finished his milk and stared off to a space behind the bar, thinking that he'd best get home and see what has happened. But for now, courtesy was the rule, and he felt he should stay at least for a while, to see how the picture turned out.
"So, Ewin, how long ya been here in this inn, makin' customers 'appy?"
Ewin pulled up the stool behind the bar and sat down. "Been a while. I learned the trade as a kid, from my uncle, David. He bought the inn from someone years before - it's been sittin' here for maybe fifty years. Poppa was a logger, and I guess I never took to that life - too much heavy work for what ya get. Didn't realize what work is, though. Uncle David worked hard after it was all closed for the night, cleanin' and fixin' things that broke down, arrangin' deliveries, all that stuff. So when my uncle retired to the woods, Poppa didn't mind me keepin' his brother's inn in the family, and Uncle David gave me the keys."
He took another swig of milk and brushed the remnants out of his moustache. "First day I took it over, I was runnin' back and forth from the front to the grill, workin' like a fool. In walks this lady and sits down, orders a breakfast. Prettiest girl I ever saw...know what I mean?"
Darmon smiled and nodded.
"So I cooked up two eggs, bread, milk, the usual. They were supposed to be scrambled, but..." He looked over Darmon's shoulder. "Runniest eggs I ever saw" was the reply from Sooky, who never even looked up from her work, followed by a silly chuckle. "Couldn't even make a good egg!"
Ewin laughed. "She invited herself into the kitchen and cooked eggs for us both. They were the best I ever had - I can still taste them. Funny how ya can remember something like that. You heard that the shortest way to a man's heart is through his stomach? Hired her on the spot. Wasn't too long after that I broke a yolk of my own - I asked that pretty little girl to marry me. Been the happiest fifteen years of my life - fifteen as of today, matter of fact!"
Darmon reached across the bar and clinked mugs with Ewin. "Congratulations, Ewin and Sooky MacDuff! Sounds like a match made in ' eshtail's 'eaven! You've both got a piece o' yerself in this inn, I can see it everywhere. Made a lot of people happy, an' full! So 'ere's ta many more!" He drank and they clinked again.
Ewin excused himself for a moment, walking over to attend to a couple at a table. Darmon took the opportunity to wander about the dining room. He wondered about the problems at home, but took some time to appreciate the old building. All around the hall was old but well-kept wainscoting of vertical tongue-in-groove knotty hickory topped off with a built-up chair rail of varnished light birch, accenting the walls in both texture and hue. From there to the plastered ceiling was more paneled hickory, this time lain horizontally. It all gave the appearance of two distinct floors, adding to the viewer's impression of height.
The coved ceiling was expertly built with great attention to the plastering and curved molding. The horizontal landings continued for a foot or two to the cove, which was sculpted and textured in a most pleasing manner, accented by expertly carved mouldings painted in a gold-like color. From the center hung an old chandelier made of elk antlers, and at the end of each point was a single candle. Darmon mused that it must take fifteen minutes to light them all.
He made way for the couple to whom Ewin was talking. The man doffed his cap, even though he hadn't yet put it on. He was well-dressed, as was his companion, obviously a merchant in town to swing a deal.
Darmon continued his walk. The oaken floor creaked with age as he walked, but gave only slightly to his bulk - it was a well-laid floor. A few places had chair-leg marks, but they were shallow scratches, indicating age. This inn had seen quite a few years, and it gave him a warm feeling to know it was so well cared for. He would certainly eat here again, and recommend it heartily.
His wanderings led him back to the bar, and noticing Sooky still engrossed in her work, he took another round, this time gazing at the furnishings. Aside from the pictures he saw earlier, the knick-knacks now grasped his attention. Each wall had several shelves arranged in an eye-catching manner, with each display arrayed to draw the viewer's attention to the most important of the keepsakes, be it a picture, old vase or carving. Some were placed in a triangular pattern, some in an ellipse. They were undoubtedly arranged by Sooky, who seemed to have an eye for art.
His trip stopped at the bar, where Ewin smiled as he washed a few plates. "Most don't make two trips, Mr. Stuart. You have a good eye for art, and for some of the finer things in life."
Darmon nodded. "Thanks, Ewin. It's easy ta see Sooky's hand in this building. Everything's designed ta make ya feel at 'ome, some ta make ya feel like yer in a castle. She might like ta redecorate our castle back home!"
"Got a job, sorry!" Sooky didn't even lift her head as she replied to the overheard invitation. "There! Just about done! The two of you, over by the bar...I'll turn it around for you to see in a minute."
Both men knew to jump when she said something. They met at the bar and waited as she took a moment to make a few dry-brush touches to finish it.
She rose from her chair and stood back for a minute, then picked the painting up off the easel and turned it around, looking up to the two men to see their reaction.
Both Ewin and Darmon took a deep breath as they were astounded by the lifelike qualities of the subjects - it was almost as if their lives were portrayed in oil. The lines in their faces, their positions, everything told the viewer all he needed to know about each man. They both were stunned, however, to see a little man to Darmon's left. He was dressed in a gray, tattered robe, and his face was nonde. Darmon leaned back against the bar. It was a good thing, since he almost swooned.
Ewin was the first to speak. "Sooky, what...who...is that on the right?"
Sooky turned the picture around to look at it herself. "It's that little man. He was standing there...I thought he was with Mr. Stuart...?"
Darmon reached over his head and pulled Dragonslayer. He rang his blade in anger as the Creag held him in front, and he glowed and vibrated with hatred. "Where is this ...man ... now! Tell me!"
Sooky pulled back as the picture fell to the floor. "I... I... I don't know! He left when I started... what have I done wrong? He was there, as plain as day!"
Darmon darted out the door and stopped at the road, looking both ways. There was nothing to see but a few children playing in front of a house to the west. He returned Slayer to his scabbard, having to push him into the leather case to quiet him. He walked back to the inn.
Sooky was standing in front of the easel, her head in her hands, sobbing. Ewin picked up the painting and replaced it on the easel, then held her closely. He looked up as Darmon approached. "I'm sorry, Mr. Stuart..."
Both innkeepers looked up in amazement. Ewin said, "Oh. I thought, maybe, it was you, but I was taught it's impolite to ask a first name if it's not given... then it's true...?"
Darmon sighed and hung his head. "I'm sorry for actin' like that. It's a beautiful painting, Sooky. I wasn't prepared... I dinna know 'e would... I must take me leave. Yer hospitality has been wonderful..."
The warrior turned on his heels and took one more look at the picture. He walked out of the doorway to the street, Sooky's sobs still audible in the distance.
He trudged along the road to Gearasdan Araich, the Battle Fort, home of the Tavish clan and the nearest Creag settlement. After about two miles, Dragonslayer was still spewing oaths from inside the battle-worn scabbard. ...yes, I know, old friend...nice people, talented, good examples of humanity ... no reason for such an intrusion... ?
Darmon and Slayer stopped at the same time. They had the same thought. ...what could he be doing... then it hit them both. Darmon spun and began a dead run back to Keller. He entered the city and crossed the little bridge to the east side. His lungs ached as he struggled for each and every breath. His head swum with images of Jonothan Farvius, the bartender in Zel City; of Aedan, the bartender in Norville; of Hallvard at Borderhold; of Tili along the road from the Deadlands; of Eloise near the Falls of Dimrune. All good people whom he had come to know, all taken from this world by a vindictive demigod.
He arrived at the site of the inn, or where he thought it should be. The town's development stopped here, and there was nothing but a pigsty along the main road. He looked around, trying to gage his distance to the houses, looking past to the east to make sure he didn't pass up the inn. He ran back to the west, then back to the pigsty. This is where it was, isn't it, Slayer?... yes, Darmon, this is it... so where is it?...
He saw a man approaching from the east, walking along the road with a child. "Excuse me, sir, could ya tell me if I passed up The Lost Fish?
The man looked at him strangely. "Don't know, mister, but if ya lost a fish, I can't help ya."
"No, no, the inn, called The Lost Fish. I thought it was right here...?"
"Mister, I've been livin' here for fifty years, now. I don't know nothin' about no inn, no lost fish. That farm yer pointin' to has been standin' there for as long as I can remember. Just who ya lookin' for, fella?"
Darmon stomped the ground and poked his finger into the chest of the much smaller man. "Look, I'm not crazy! I had breakfast here just a few hours ago! The Lost Fish! It's an inn, mon. A beautiful old inn. Decorated with paintings, mon! Owned by David MacDuff, he willed it to his nephew Ewin MacDuff, who ran it for fifteen years with his wife Sooky! Don't try ta fool me, old mon!"
The old man quaked. "L-l-look, mister, I'm sorry if there's no inn here, but I haven't heard of any of those people. No Mac Duff, no Ewin, nothin'! It's been a farm run by John Davis, now, for fifty years! And if ya had breakfast here, well..." He pointed to the mud and the snorting pigs.
Darmon raised his hands in acquiescence. "Okay, okay, I must be... mistaken... or somethin'... sorry to have scared ya..."
He walked over to the pigs and leaned on the split-rail fence. One of the pigs waddled over toward him, cautiously looking him over, perhaps expecting a snack or some crumbs. Apparently they were occasionally fed by children from the road. Darmon reached over and petted it as the cold, hard realization of what had happened hit both him and Slayer. His tears splattered on the porcine face.
He wiped his eyes, but couldn't wipe the remembrance of two lovely people, gifted in their own ways, dedicated to each other, giving their lives and souls to those in need of food and fellowship. Torn from this world, their spirits gone and not even remembered, not even ever having existed. That had to be it: The vengeful Tanarus had, using his terrible magic, literally destroyed both people and wiped away all traces of them. Darmon pushed himself away from the fence, just as he had pushed himself from the bar hours ago to walk around a room that was filled with life. He began a painfully long walk to Creagland.
The pig walked beside him for a few feet, its hooves slipping on a haphazardly painted canvas that was half-hidden in the mud. The pig smiled at the sword hanging from a scabbard over the back of the Creag. It was an evil smile.
1. Literally, cheap blade
2. Road trash (highwayman)