He threw a punch, and it landed, and it hurt.
He could smell the pig roasting on the spit, and the ale spilled on the bar. He could feel the heat rising, and the adrenaline pumping in everyone’s ears He could hear the screams, outside and inside his head, and for a moment he felt like he was home.
He threw a punch, and it landed, and it hurt less.
“Come on,” he screamed, advancing on his stumbling opponent. He threw another punch, and it missed, but the man fell to the ground anyway. Alex drove the point of his boot into the underside of his ribs, and he screamed along with his opponent.
He felt a hand scratch at his ankle, desperately looking for a hand hold, something to even the odds; Alex pulled his foot away and dug his boot into the man’s fingers, and this time his cry was louder than the wounded’s. Alex was in his element; Alex was burning up with purpose; Alex was home.
He knelt down, and put his hand on the man’s neck. He could see the man’s eyes, watched them dart, watched them search for some avenue of escape, and he waited. He waited until they slide over to him, and when the unfocused pupils landed on Alex’s face, Alex broke out into a grin.
“Hello,” Alex said, and pressed down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and–
Alex woke up in a cold sweat, a scream in his throat, and eyes so wide they threatened to tear apart. He couldn’t get a breathe in his chest, couldn’t get the shakes out of his bones; the man in the dream is a stranger, Alex thought; the man in the dream is a stranger, Alex thought; the man in the dream is a stranger.
The air came back into his lungs, and his vision cleared. He was in bed, and he was okay; he had left the past, and re-entered the future. Alex swung his legs over the side of his bed, and rubbed his face.
He stood, and went over to the window, throwing open the wooden slats. It was still night, still hours before he was to post in front of the shop, but Alex knew he wouldn’t sleep again tonight. It had been a long time since he had dreamed of that day, and a long time since he woke up in terror; but he had been through this enough to know that the only thing waiting for him when he closed his eyes was darkness.
“Goddamn,” Alex said, staring out into the cold night. The moon was almost full, and the air was mild and cool. It was not quite summer yet, still teetering on the edge of spring, and Alex very much liked that. He had come to Toha in those inbetween spring-summer weeks, years and years ago, and they reminded him of his fresh start, and the promise of making up for past mistakes, and lost time.
“Are you naked?” said a voice from below. Alex looked down, and shook his head. Harry, the Captain of the Toha Village Guard, was underneath his window.
“You look naked!” Harry said, yelling up.
“I am,” Alex said.
“That’s a crime in Toha, you know. Showing off your parts.”
“Isn’t much to show off, Captain.”
Harry let out a loud cackle.
“Truer words have never been spoken, my friend,” Harry said. A nearby window, owned by a mother and her two children, opened.
“Captain,” the woman said, firmly. Harry put up his hands.
“Yes, madra. Of course.”
The woman closed the window. Alex shook his head. Harry looked up at Alex, and held up a closed fist. Alex rolled his eyes, but nodded, and went back in his room, closing the window behind him. Alex went over to the wardrobe, and pulled a rough shirt over his chest, wincing at the ever-present tightness in his shoulders. He stepped into a pair of rough breeches, and into a pair of boots. They were all clean, and well-maintained, but rarely used; Alex spent much of his time in armor, or in is under-armor clothing, and his casual wear sat mostly quiet. He caught a glimpse of himself in the cracked mirror on the wall; his brown hair was still thick, cut short above the ears, and he still cut an imposing figure.
Outside, Harry stood, whistling.
“Good morning, Alex,” Harry said, when Alex walked up.
“Morning, Harry,” Alex said. They began walking.
“The Greased Pig, or the Wooden Beam?”
“Which one has the Fuko ale?”
“Greased it is.”
Harry nodded, and they changed direction, heading down an alleyway. Harry shined in the damp darkness; his silver armor was polished to perfection, and the helm on his head, burnished with gold, looked like the sun when light hit upon it.
That helm came off as they exited the alley, and Harry tucked it under his arm. His hair had once been bright red, and thick, and now it had become patchy, and gray. His skin had become wrinkled, and the beard more heavy; but the smile remained the same. Those white teeth shined out of his browned skin, and belied the warrior that lay behind the armor.
“The **** are you doing up so early?” Harry said.
“Didn’t sleep well,” Alex said.
“Mm. Same one, as always.”
“Been a while, yeah?”
The breeze kicked up, and Alex breathed in deep.
“Nothing smells like Toha,” Alex said, and Harry nodded.
“Less horseshit than the cities, I imagine,” Harry said.
“In more ways than one.”
“What are you doing out this early, Harry?” Alex said.
“One of the merchants got mouthy at the Brilliant Sun. Talked down to one of the passing caravan traders. We calmed it, sent the merchant home, but he went back and started trouble again. By the time we got there, his head had been bashed in. Nobody saw a thing.”
“Not a thing.”
“Merchant Bannar is going to love that,” Alex said.
“Your master isn’t in much danger with you at his side, I am sure,” Harry said.
“He’s insistent on running that shop by himself. One of the richest men in the town, and he won’t hire a ****ing man to mind the store.”
They stopped at the Greased Pig. They could smell the bacon cooking, and hear laughter from the inside.
“People still there, at this hour,” Alex said.
“We’re here at this hour,” Harry said.
They opened the door, and went inside. There were a few patrons left, working on the last stages of their ever-permanent all-nighter. One or two of them, seeing the silver armor of the Village Guard, scattered for the back door. But most recognized Harry, and most recognized Alex, and they all drank down the last drops of their drinks, and asked for another.
“Early day, sers,” the barkeep said. Gita was young, too young to own this bar, but she did so anyway. Tucked beneath the sash on her dress was a dagger, and hanging on the wall was a sword, but Alex reckoned that every man in this bar would be cut down by the bow she had laying on a shelf beneath the counter.
“Early indeed, Gita,” Harry said, and they slid in at the bar, sitting on rough wooden stools.
“Is that bacon I smell?” Alex said, and Gita nodded.
“Been frying up bacon early, see if I could bring in a few more customers lately,” Gita said.
“Is it working?” Harry said.
“You two are here, aren’t you?” she said.
She walked away from the bar, and into a backroom. She came out with two full plates of bacon, and sat it in front of the two men.
“I’ve got his,” Harry said, pulling out coin enough for both men, but she only took half.
“You eat free,” she said to Harry.
“I guard valuables too, madra,” Alex said.
“I like Harry. You too, but less so.”
She poured Fuko Ale for Alex, and Toha brew for Harry, and slid them to the men. She smiled at Alex, who pretended to be wounded. The two men knocked their ale together, and began wolfing down their bacon.
The shop was busiest a few hours after it opened. It was the only shop that sold cheap clothing, as most of the others specialized in finer linens and silks; some offered rough burlap and discarded skins, but that was the extent of the selection.
Alex’s post was just outside the front entrance. He wore his full golden armor, with sword on his hip and a crossbow in his hands. It was mostly for show; mostly to remind children and those with sticky fingers that a swift kick in the ass awaited for anyone taking so much as a shoe. Alex had only had trouble with three or four customers in his ten years working for Merchant Bannar, and those struggles ended with gentle admonitions and a removal from the shop, rather than gutting someone.
He would walk through the store every now and then, landing each and every bootfall with the authority of an approaching bull. He would scowl, and furrow his brow, and hoist the crossbow, so that it would clank and rattle, and all the wide-eyed boys and girls would put down what they were looking at, and clutch at the hems of their mother and father’s clothing.
Inside, Merchant Bannar ran the counter. He exchanged every coin himself; every bit of paper money from Beros was converted through his worn fingers. Alex had never seen another soul touch that money; not even Alex had been allowed to work the counter. The only thing that Bannar ever allowed anyone else to do was clean the shop; a few of the poor children came and cleaned the floors and windows late at night, and there wasn’t a footprint or a smudge in or outside the shop.
Merchant Bannar wore common cotton and common shoes when in the shop. Alex asked him once why he didn’t wear the fine silks he wore in his private life, and Bannar told him to shut up and go back outside.
Alex had been outside the shop for a few hours, and that cool spring air of that early morning had been replaced by a blazing sun. Summer was peeking, and Alex was upset, and as such, it was time for a walk through the store.
“Good morning, ser,” a woman said, as Alex entered. He nodded, and kept walking. The children scattered, and some adults, too. Bannar was talking to an older man, about Alex’s size, at the counter; they were speaking quietly, but with animation that made Alex uncomfortable. Bannar saw Alex over the man’s shoulders, and cut his eyes toward the man. Alex made his way over.
“Bannar, please,” the man saying, “you have to believe me.”
“I cannot help you, ser,” Bannar said.
“How can you not recognize me? Has it been that long that you cannot recognize me?”
“Ser, if there is something else I can help you with, I will. Otherwise, you will be removed from the store.”
Alex landed a heavy boot, and the man turned. He and Alex made eye contact, and his eyes widened. A small, sad smile crossed the man’s lips. He nodded, almost to himself, and ran a hand through his hair.
“I see,” the man said. “I had forgotten.”
The man turned back to Bannar, and gave him that same sad smile. He stuck out his hand, and Bannar took it, reluctant, and a little confused.
“It was good to see you again, old friend,” the man said, and then turned and left the store. Alex and Bannar watched him go.
“Who is that?” Alex said. Bannar shook his head.
“No idea,” Bannar said. He rubbed his chin.
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, Alex. I’m fine. Just… he asked for something that he shouldn’t have known about. That nobody should know about. It’s not–”
Bannar looked up Alex, and stopped speaking.
“Go back outside, please,” Bannar said, and began tending to a customer just down the counter. Alex did as he was told, and went back outside.
Outside, Alex fidgeted. He was as troubled by the man as Bannar was, but for reasons that he could not quite place. The man felt familiar, but not in a way that he understood; he knew for a fact that he had never seen this man, had never spoken to him, had never passed him in a crowd. Something upset Alex about this tall, broad man.
But he put it out of his mind. He worked the rest of his time outside the shop, not daring to enter, and endured the grinding heat.
He met with Bannar that night, at his house. Alex wore his armor to dinner, but took it off when he arrived at Bannar’s home. Bannar picked at the knots holding the armor together, and together they set it on the table. It was the first time that Alex had been out of his armor since he began work that morning.
“You can take it off once you leave the shop, you know,” Bannar said, as they sat down to eat.
“If I take it off, and something happens, I have to put it back on,” Alex said, forking a piece of pork.
“Nothing has happened in ten years.”
“It’s not much of a burden, Merchant. Truly.”
“It’s a burden that you call me Merchant, as if that is somehow an honorific.”
“I could call you what I call you in private, but I prefer to remain employed.”
Bannar rolled his eyes, and took a bite of buttered bread, and washed it down with a goblet of water. Bannar no longer drank wine; he was nearly his sixties, and he felt the wine dulled an already weakened mind. Alex had no such convictions, at thirty-two, and drank as much wine as his stomach could handle, plus a handle more.
They ate well, the two of them. Once a week, Alex would come over for supper, as an additional thank you from Bannar. Roast chicken, and roast duck, and roast beef; all of the roasts, and most of it given away the next day. Bannar had once been a large, jolly man; once filled two chairs, and ate like two men, but he had long since burned away that fat, and become thin. He didn’t laugh as much as he had before they had come to Toha; but he as a good deal richer than before, too.
Bannar was more quiet than usual; more reserved, and more inward. Alex took a deep drink of wine, and set the cup down on the table. He turned to Bannar.
“Can I ask you a question?” Alex said.
“Not about the man from today,” Bannar said.
“Whatever he asked you about is clearly still bothering you.”
“Indeed it is.”
“Can you tell me why?”
Bannar sighed. He sat back in his chair, his food mostly uneaten on his plate. He rubbed his chin.
“I was given something by a friend, years and years ago, “ Bannar said. “He told me to keep it close, and to never let it out of my sight. He said it was dangerous, and he trusted only I to keep ahold of it.”
“What is it?” Alex said.
“I cannot say; I told him I would not. But what I can say is that it’s magical in origin, and a vast pain in my ass.”
Bannar shook his head. He took a drink of water, and then reached over and grabbed Alex’s wine cup, taking a drink, and making a face. He handed it back to Alex.
“That is awful,” Bannar said. “Has wine always tasted like that? Like rotten grapes?”
“That’s what wine is, I believe,” Alex said.
“What a horrifying discovery.”
Bannar stood, and Alex followed. They went upstairs, to the second floor balcony, and stared out towards the distant mountains, and the Grenwood, only a few hundred feet from the front gate of Toha. Bannar leaned against the balcony railing.
“What are you supposed to do with this thing?” Alex said.
“Hold onto it. Forever,” Bannar said.
“Why have you not buried it? Or destroyed it? Or hid it somewhere?”
“He told me to never let it go. That I had to hold it.”
“Not to be too forward, Merchant Bannar, but that sounds absurd,” Alex said. Bannar looked up at him, and then away.
“Perhaps,” Bannar said softly, “but this man was the closest thing I’ve had to a brother, and perhaps the closest I’ve had to a father.”
“Where is this man now?”
Bannar moved off the railings, and began his way back inside. Alex followed.
“How?” Alex said. Bannar stopped, but did not turn around.
“I killed him,” Bannar said. And with that, he left Alex behind, and went down the stairs, past the table, and the kitchen, and into his bedroom on the first floor.
He had the nightmare again that night.
He woke up the same way, with the same pain, and the same fear. He threw open his window again, hoping for a cool breeze, and hoping that Harry would cross by, but neither came; it was a warm night, and the town was quiet.
His hands shook, and he squeezed them into fists. He couldn’t deal with the nightmares again. Not again. Not like this. He had left that behind; the man in the dream was a stranger; the man in the dream was a stranger; the man in the dream was a stranger.
His armor was in the corner, sitting in a heap. It was unlike Alex; he kept it on the armor stand, and polished once or twice a week. It made him feel powerful, and safe; it made him feel like a protector. Without the armor, he felt small, and cornered; he felt like an aggressor, like a stranger from a dream.
The shop was closed and locked up this time of night, but Alex would not sleep, as he knew he could not, and he needed a reason to be out so late and early. He put on his armor, piece by piece, and armed himself with sword, but left the crossbow against the wall.
Outside, his feet felt heavy, and his eyes sagged with sleep. He could not keep doing this, he knew; he worked too many hours to rest so little, and it would catch up to him. Once upon a time, Alex drank a concoction from a healer in Toha, and it put himself in such a deep and dreamless sleep that the nightmares did not wake him. But that healer was dead, taken by old age, and Alex had to subsist on other things.
The shop was closed, and the windows dark, as Alex knew it would be. He drew comfort from the sight of the place; a sense of purpose that he felt nowhere else. He had felt that same purpose as a Palace Guard; that same sense of power, and status. He had been somebody, and he was somebody again.
Alex suddenly realized that he was staring at wood and glass, brick and mortar; he was aware that he was in full ****ing plate armor, carrying a ****ing sword, during the wee hours of the morning. He felt embarrassed, and slow; he felt as he did in those slums, staring up with dirty face, begging for coin or bread, or a least a warm place to sleep. There was no reason to be here, and no reason that Alex could not sleep. The nightmares were not real; the man in the dream was a stranger.
Alex sighed, and turned to leave, but stopped. On the front stoop of the shop, right at the stairs, was a muddy footprint; Alex felt his heart in his throat, and he drew his sword, and went up to the shop. The door was unlocked, and it swung open into black darkness.
Alex knew that his first step would creak, and it did, sending what sounded like the groan of a wounded animal throughout the building. Alex listened for a response; the quick pattering of feet, or the heavy breathing of an exposed thief, but nothing reached his ears. He took another step inside, and this one groaned too, and Alex gave up on stealth and strode, loudly and with great purpose, into the shop.
He made his way in the inky black, sword at the ready. A little bit of moonlight came in the door and window behind him, but around and ahead of him, the darkness was absolute. Alex made his way deeper into the store, pausing every so often, but still heard nothing.
There was a door at the very back of the shop, and it led to Merchant Bannar’s rarely used office. But it was ajar, and that was not right; it was locked, almost always, and Alex took a bold step towards and kicked it in.
Inside, the man from earlier was sitting on Bannar’s rough wooden desk. Alex raised his sword, and the man put up his hand.
“There’s no need,” the man said. Alex kept the sword raised.
“You are tresspassing,” Alex said.
“I am well within my rights to cut you from neck to cock, friend.”
“‘Neck to cock’? Really? Shame, ser,” the man said, hopping off the desk. Alex felt his face flush, and grew angry.
“I’ll do it,” Alex said. The man nodded.
“I believe you.”
The man took something out of his pocket; a shapeless black stone, with a blue circle with a line through it burned into the side.
“He’s had this for years and years, you know,” the man said. “As long as I’ve known him. Longer, I suppose.”
“Put it back,” Alex said.
“It came from there,” the man said, pointing to an open box on the back counter.
“Put it back,” Alex repeated.
The man leaned against the desk. He stared at Alex, whose sword was still at the ready. He shook his head, and laughed.
“The impetus of ****ing youth,” he said, and sighed.
“Put it back.”
“I’m not going to put it back. I need it. I need it to complete my mission.”
“Your mission?” Alex said, curious, despite himself.
“A ****ing awful mission, as it turns out. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, but now I am,” the man said. He rubbed his eyes.
“I can’t let you take that from here.”
“Of course not. But I’m going to, anyway,” the man said, and then smiled, that small, sad smile. Then he laughed again, and put the stone back in his pocket.
“What’s so funny?”Alex said.
“You’ll get it in time,” the man said, and suddenly made for the door. Alex stepped in front, but he underestimated the man’s strength, and the man’s shoulder crashed into Alex’s chest, and they both went stumbling.
Alex grabbed the man’s arm as he went down, and they both went to the ground. The man landed a punch, and it hurt; hurt more than Alex had ever been hurt, and he saw thick red drip from his battered nose to the wooden floor. The second punch was worse, but muted, as if he heard the impact from a long distance. He felt something bubbling up in him, something old and forgotten, something strange, and it was as if he was outside his body looking in. The anger turned his mind black, and Alex drove a boot into the man’s stomach. He climbed upon, and drove the knee deeper, and Alex wrapped his hands around the man’s neck, and screamed. His eyes were wide, and his teeth were gritted, and he squeezed and squeezed, until he felt a crack and he felt the man go limp.
Alex felt himself fall next to the dull corpse, and he was back in his own eyes, and his own mouth, and he scrambled from the murdered body of an unknown thief, and he vomited, and curled up into a ball. He did not know how long he lay there; how long he pretended that he was somewhere else; but eventually, he came back.
“Oh gods,” Alex said.
He crawled over to the man. He was weaponless; not even a small dagger, and he took on a man in full plate armor. Alex felt bile rising in his throat, and he choked it down. He reached into the man’s pockets, and his fingers brushed against the stone, and–
A burning pain, the most– it was unbearable. Had his armor melted? Was he dying? What had he done? The pain was uncontrollable, it was hot and cold, it was good and bad, it was something that did not exist in him before. He had never felt such pain, and such anger, and such relief, and such joy. He was whole, and incomplete; he was new, and old. The stone stuck to him like goddamn animal, it’s teeth dug into his skin and under his fingernails. Alex wanted to die. Alex wanted to–
It expelled from him, a massive blast of pain and anger, and it blew everything around him to bits and pieces; and within the wreckage, Alex slept.