Chapter 2: Durin
Whispers travel swiftly on the winds of a small town, and on this dreary rain-soaked night they bear the message, “westerners approach.”
-Poet of Durin during the great western raids.
Plodding heavily on the mud-soaked pilgrim trail, two great steeds of the wild breeds common to the west carry their fur cloaked riders into the way-stop of Durin like wet bags of meal. The stallions stop at a hitching post in front of the small hamlet’s only tavern and wait as well as any civilized breed for their riders to slowly, achingly, dismount. This is no night for travelling as the winter’s storm batters both man and beast, and the two shivering western riders are grateful for the promise of a warm hearth and hearty fare that a tavern can provide.
Located on the pilgrim trail that leads from the Central Kingdoms to the Western Territories, the little hamlet of Durin acts as trading post and way-stop for settlers, brigands, governors, and scoundrels alike. This little town has seen armies come and go, had the winds of war bellowing on its doorstep, and faced the worst bands of robbers and bandits the civilized kingdoms had to offer. Nothing, however, causes as much stir in the residents of these parts as reports of western wild men in their midst.
It’s been a dozen years now since the settlers and militias from various kingdoms carved out new lands in the West by displacing the tribes of barbarians that had lived there. Though forts and walls now form a border between the new colonies and the wilds, a few wayfarers still manage make their way into civilized lands and invariably cause murder and mayhem wherever they go. Such is the mindset of the people of Durin when the mysterious western riders enter their hamlet.
Shaking off the rain under cover of the tavern’s roof the two wayfarers stretch their frigid limbs and straighten their hunched backs, thus revealing the true proportions of their enormous size and bulk. Though one man is shorter than the other, both of these western brutes stand well above six feet in height and hide broad shoulders lined with thick muscles under their heavy, hooded, fur cloaks. They enter the tavern one at a time as the taller of the two men must duck his head to fit through the good-sized door and his shorter compatriot must turn slightly to pass his broad shoulders through its narrow width.
The faces of both men are paled by the cold, though each has a measure of protection from thick beards that hang from their chins. Dark, unruly, hair sprouts from under their hoods and their black eyes dart back and forth as the two barbarians survey the near empty hall with weary yet penetrating gazes.
The stone-built tavern is sturdy and old with wood planked floors and brown oak trim breaking up its otherwise bleak, stone, construction. To the left of the entrance is a mess of rickety chairs surrounding small tables, only one of which is occupied and that’s only by three local men who look grim and haggard as they huddle together whispering like hags from a children’s fable. Two large round tables cover the center of the room while another takes up most of the corner to the right. Also on the right, but past the tables, is a handsome oak bar, sternum high to an average man, thick and well made. A small man with thinning hair and the look of an innkeeper about him stands at the end of the bar with a boy who bears a striking resemblance to him standing near. Behind the bar is a door leading inevitably to a kitchen, but at the far end of the room is a sight that the rain-soaked wayfarers are truly glad to see; a roaring, wide-mouthed, hearth made of thick stones and radiating glorious heat into the otherwise dreary room.
The two strangers take full measure of the place before slowly making their way to the hearth at the far end. They push past the flimsy chairs and rickety tables then sit unceremoniously on the ground in front of the fire in an attempt to warm their frozen hands and rest their weary muscles.
As the strangers thaw, the innkeeper whispers inaudibly with the boy behind the bar while the only other three patrons in the place sit nervously at their table in the far corner. The innkeeper soon ends his conversation with the boy and gathers his courage to approach the two wild men.
“You men state your business here,” he says to the huddled barbarians.
The men continue warming themselves by the glowing fire and answer the innkeeper only with their silence.
“Has the rain made you dumb?” the innkeeper asks in a high, wavering, voice. “Or do you not speak a civilized tongue?”
The shorter, wider, barbarian turns slowly over his hunched shoulder and catches the innkeeper with an eye as black as coal yet burning with primal fury.
“We speak your tongue,” he says with a heavy accent.
“Good,” the innkeeper replies. “Then state your business.”
“Our business is our own.”
The words of the shorter barbarian end with a finality that leaves no space for further inquisition and the room falls back into an uneasy silence as the innkeeper returns to the boy at the bar, whispers him a few words, then puts on a heavy cloak and heads out into the stormy night.
The barbarians continue to warm themselves by the fire as the boy behind the bar watches them ceaselessly and the three other patrons whisper amongst themselves secretively. It is a scene of quiet unease plays itself out for what seems like eternity until the shorter barbarian disrupts the quiet with a sudden request.
“Boy,” he says lowly but firmly. “Bring us hot food and spiced wine.”
The boy starts, as a rabbit does when it hears the growl of a hungry wolf, then freezes, unsure of what to do.
“We have silver to pay with,” the taller barbarian adds with assurance.
Though his father told him not to let the barbarians out of his sight, the boy sees few options but to obey a paying customer and creeps away to the kitchen where he stokes the fire in the belly of their cooking stove and prepares to re-heat some of the tavern’s famous beef stew. Once the stove is fired the boy throws two pre-seared beef shanks into a heavy cooking pot and then adds the stew of beef gravy, potatoes, onions and herbs that his mum prepared before she took to her bed to nurse his newly born sister.
Feeling the pot to be properly stewing, the boy loads up a tray with spiced wine and two goblets before emerging from the kitchen. To his great relief, the two travelers are seated in the same positions as when he left and have not yet begun to murder, loot, and burn as he was sure they would do in his absence.
Placing the tray on a nearby table the boy pours a goblet full and hands it to the nearest cloaked figure. The huge hands and thick fingers of the shorter barbarian look monstrous as they reach from under his shaggy cloak and envelope the offered cup. Then, before the boy can bat an eye, the barbarian downs the burning liquid in a single gulp and hands the cup back for a refill. The boy refills his cup and repeats this same ceremony with the taller barbarian before laying the jug of wine on the floor between them and returning to his place at the bar.
The wild men sit in silence drinking their spiced wine as all eyes in the room study their every move and gesture. Eventually, the tavern returns to a sense of normalcy as the haggardly men in the corner return to conversing amongst themselves quietly and the boy returns to his duties of cooking and serving.
Unfortunately, this calm does not last and is soon interrupted when a group of dark shadows appear at the tavern door. Five men, clad in black cloaks, sharing pale complexions and a roguish appearance step in from the rain like dark ghosts. The unnatural silence and foreboding presence of these men cause the hags in the corner to once again stop their whispering.
“Have a seat gents,” the boy says after a moments pause.
The men eye the room from side to side before seating themselves at a round table near the bar.
“What can I get you gents?” the boy asks approaching their table naively.
As he draws near, one of the black clad wolves snatches the boy’s arm with an iron grip and pulls him close.
“Where’s your pa, boy?” he hisses.
“He… He’s just stepped out,” the boy stutters. “But he’ll be back soon.”
“Good,” the man says releasing his grip. “We have business with him. Until then, bring us ale… and some of that food I smell cooking.”
The boy rushes back behind the bar rubbing the bruise that is surely to form on his arm and taps a fresh keg of ale for his mysterious new customers. As the boy pours them each a tankard, one of the dark rogues nudges the man next to him and nods towards the barbarians sitting by the fire. The second rogue’s eyes narrow and his face becomes stony as he recognizes the men for western heathens, unwashed blasphemers who worship false gods and ought not to be allowed in the same tavern as civilized men.
After serving the dark strangers their ale, the boy emerges from the kitchen with a tray that contains two wooden bowls, each with a shank of meat sticking from it and carrying the thick aroma of onions, potatoes and spices smothered in a rich beef gravy. The men at the table salivate as the boy rounds the bar but they are quickly angered as he bypasses them and heads for the two barbarians seated by the fire.
“Hey boy!” the rogue seated farthest away barks. “Bring us that food!”
The boy stops in his tracks just as he reaches the westerners and turns to face the table of men.
“But these gents ordered first…”
“Gents?” the farthest rogue mocks as he stands. “Those aren’t gents. They’re western dogs and I’ll not be served second to them!”
The boy stands frozen, unsure what to do, until a thick hand slowly reaches up from the floor and takes one of the steaming wooden bowls from the boy’s serving tray. A second giant hand also reaches up and places two silver coins on the platter before taking the other bowl. All of the black clad rogues stand in unison at this affront, causing the serving boy to start and drop his tray. The silver coins clang on the ground and ring musically in the deathly silence that follows.
“Don’t worry boy,” the taller barbarian rumbles in a low baritone. “Now go back to the kitchen.”
The men around the table watch furiously as the boy slinks back behind the bar and rushes into the kitchen. The rogues then share quick side glances with one another to confirm their intentions before moving as a pack towards the seated barbarians.
The rogues approach slowly, spreading out as they do, but stop when they hear the sharp thud of steel strike the wood floor of the tavern. The taller barbarian shrugs off his thick cloak revealing a broad claymore resting on his lap with a wide pommel, made in the western style, and sheathed in a short leather harness that covers only the first third of the long blade. The shorter barbarian also slides a weapon forward from under his cloak in the form of a heavy, broad-headed, axe, made from pure black-iron, that must be at least a stone’s weight.
“You men needn’t die tonight,” the taller barbarian says with malicious calm.
The rogues stand two arms lengths away in a semi-circle around the barbarians who have the hearth to their backs and still sit cross legged on the floor.
“You mean to spill our blood, dog?” the rogue in the center hisses. “You come to our land, get served before us, and now you threaten to spill our blood?”
The barbarians say nothing, merely staring up at the rogues blankly as if their dark eyes see everything and nothing all at once.
In unison, the rogues slip their cloaks back over their shoulders to reveal tough leather hides armoring their chests and deadly silver blades hanging from their belts.
“What say you, dog?” the center rogue demands. “Heathen! Black-eyed devil!”
The rogues’ insults hang in the silence that follows as the two barbarians do not reply, but instead sit with their eyes transfixed on the black cloaks and silvery blades carried by each of the rogues.
“Did you know,” the taller barbarian finally says. “That we came to this place by way of the Pilgrim Trail? And that on this trail we found a dying man with a slain family lying in a pool of his own blood?”
The rogues share nervous glances, but do not reply.
“The dying man told us it was men with black cloaks and silver blades that murdered him.”
The eyes of the rogues go wide at the accusation but, before they can act, the taller of the barbarians grabs the hilt of his long claymore with one hand, wraps his other hand around its sheath, and swings the sword in a backwards motion like one might thrust an oar into the water. The uncovered tip of the blade scrapes across the wood floor and catches the man to his right in the back of his heel, sheering tendons and nearly severing his foot. The rogue drops instantly, screaming murder as he falls.
Meanwhile, the shorter barbarian acts instinctively, sensing the moment, and strikes nearly simultaneously as he thrusts his axe forward like a spear and catches the man nearest him full in the face with its hard iron edge. The man reels back, stumbles over a chair, and lands heavily on the floor with blood pouring from his nose and teeth falling from his mouth.
The three rogues who are left standing leap back from the sudden attack and loose their cloaks to let them fall to the floor. Each rogue then draws a gleaming silver dagger in one hand and a twin edged short sword made of charcoal-gray steel in the other.
As the rogues hover and sway in fighting stances full of bravado, the two barbarians rise to their feet and tower above them like giants. The flickering light from the hearth is diminished by their massive shadows but still flashes and licks behind them like the fires of hell.
“You’re going to pay with your lives for what you’ve done,” the wolfish rogue in the center snarls.
The taller barbarian answers these feeble words by raising his sword ever so slightly and plunging its thick blade deep into the chest of the man on the floor whose ankle he severed. The thick western blade carves through the wounded rogue with little resistance and hits the wood floor with a sickening crunch as the prone man gasps, only a little, before dying. It’s at this moment the rogues realize that they know not whom they have confronted, and the fear of imminent death suddenly strikes them.
The battle, if you can call it that, ends quickly. To those civilized men who witness it, however, the slaughter seems to take a lifetime and will haunt them for even longer.
The three hags in the corner grip each other like old women and weep as their eyes take in the carnage of a black iron axe and a western claymore swinging like butcher’s cleavers; smashing, pulverizing, and splattering the rogues into unrecognizable heaps.
From his place behind the bar the boy peers at the battle with childish curiosity until the first scream pierces his ears and a splash of blood washes across his face. He sinks to the ground as though struck, covering his ears and shutting his eyes, but the only way he finds to drown out the agony of the men being butchered is by crying out at the top of his lunges a lullaby that his mother used to sing him.
When the carnage finally ends, the walls of the tavern are splattered with blood and gore, as are the boots, cloaks and weapons of the barbarians. All is silent except for the heavy breathing of the victors and a tiny weeping sound coming from behind the bar. The patrons in the corner are too frightened to make a single noise as the blood-covered barbarians push past the mess of rickety chairs and make for the tavern door. The shorter barbarian exits swiftly, but the taller man stays a moment to survey the wreckage left in his wake. After a moment’s reflection, he reaches into a pocket of his thick cloak and produces a a small leather purse that he tosses onto the table in front of the frightened patrons. The purse lands with the metallic chime of coins and the patrons look up at the giant barbarian with awe.
“See that the inn keep gets these coins. For his trouble of scraping these men off the floor.”
With that, the tall barbarian turns and walks back into the stormy night. The frightened patrons look on through the tavern’s small window as the western barbarians let the rain wash the blood from the boots and cloaks before mounting their giant steeds and spurring them east, away from the pilgrim trail and the western wild lands, towards the civilized kingdoms.
Not long after the barbarians depart, the Innkeeper returns to his tavern with the town constable and six men bearing axes and pitchforks. They are all relieved to find the giant stallions gone from the hitching post out front, and the tavern still standing, but they are also wary of what they might find inside.
Stepping through the front door, the constable turns his head and shields his face against what he finds there.
“Lord-God,” the constable mutters as the man next to him turns back onto the porch and wretches.
The other men look inside but refuse to enter, except for the Innkeeper who pushes his way to the front and shouts for his boy. Finding the lad bloodied and curled up behind the bar like a newborn, the innkeeper wraps him in a blanket and carries him from the horrific scene with a pledge never to return.
Out of shock, as much as courage, the constable is able to regain himself and take in the visage of destruction laid before him without flinching. Looking over the devastated room in gruesome wonderment he notes that it’s near impossible to rightly tell how many men lie dead amidst the shattered tables, splintered chairs, dismembered bodies, and oceans of blood. It’s as if a hurricane with brutal intentions swept through the room and ground up everything in its path.
It’s in this state of stunned observation that the constable slowly looks to his left and finds three men huddled in the corner. He approaches the trio quietly, causing one of the men to reach out for him as if he were a blind man groping for a lost companion. When the constable reaches him, the man grasps his arm and pulls him tight.
“Did you see them?” he whispers.
“Who?” the constable demands. “Who did this?”
“Devils,” the man coughs. “Giants… Not men… Not men.”
The old man then reaches into his robe and pulls out a small leather purse.
“One…One of them gave this to me before they left. He said it was payment, for the mess.”
“Lord-God,” the constable curses as he looks from the purse of coins over to the pile of bodies and back again.
“Are you sure they’re gone?” he finally asks the shivering old man. “Did you see where they went?”
“Yes,” the old man nods, nearly crying. “East… They went East by God.”
“East?” the constable mimics. “Towards The Kingdoms? May God have mercy.”
A mile down the dark and muddy pilgrim trail two cloaked riders atop giant stallions make their way east towards the so-called civilized kingdoms, and death follows with them.