‘That’s enough.’ Andrei steps in and snaps his fingers; uniformed men-at-arms suddenly flank him. Hands on swordhilts. Halberds glinting. ‘It’s time for you and yours to move along now, Prior.’
Sala draws himself up haughtily, then inclines his head. ‘Indeed,’ he murmurs. ‘We shall … give thanks.’
Owen watches them shuffle off, then turns to the Magistrate. ‘Okay, what the fuck was that?’
Andrei sighs. ‘We suffered a demon attack during the recent troubles. It was … a difficult night for the priory.’ He grimaces, stroking his neatly-groomed beard. ‘Honestly, though? When it was learned that the actions of the Church unleashed all this, burning that poor woman … I think it just sent Prior Sala and his monks quite mad.’
‘Oh dear,’ Owen deadpans. ‘What a shame. Never mind.’
Andrei huffs a laugh, then turns sombre. ‘He’s been taking in similar refugees ever since the attack. Other priests raving nonsense. Damaged, frightening men. It’s a problem. Mister …?’
‘Ah. No last name?’
Owen gazes uphill towards the looming priory. ‘Not until I feel a little safer here.’
‘Hm. Sensible of you.’ He holds out a pudgy hand, and Owen shakes it. ‘Well, Mr Owen, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to Reikstadt.’
Owen watches him waddle off between his armed escort. Weird place, for sure. Headman’s rather a gruff hardass, perhaps. Still, he seems vaguely likeable. Affable enough. If rather naive.
‘What d’you want fer each tooth?’
He turns. ‘’Scuse me?’
A rat-faced merchant approaches him, carrying a hooked knife and a pair of pliers. He waves towards the veidraugr. ‘I’ll give ya two silvers fer each tooth!’
Owen regards him coolly. ‘Really?’
‘All right … three, then!’
Huh. Seems simple enough. Owen raises open palms, smiling. ‘Three coins a tooth’s just fine, but … you’ll have to get ’em out yourself.’
The merchant brandishes his tools. ‘Heh! Happy to!’
Yeah, good luck with that, pal. Owen’s gaze wanders over the roadside market stalls, then his eyes gleam. An outdoor bar. And that man there … has beer. The bartender wipes his countertop with a rag, a rack of gleaming brass tankards hung behind and – count them – one, two, three barrels of beautiful ale on tap!
‘Could I get a mug?’ Owen asks, smirking at the sounds of puffing and straining behind him. ‘I’ll have some coins. In a minute. Maybe five.’
The bartender raises an open palm. ‘You killed that bastard thing? You get one free.’
Owen clasps his hands together. ‘I bloody love you,’ he sighs.
The bartender slides the mug in front of him, full to the brim, smelling of hops and foamy on top, the way the best beer always froths when the keg’s just been freshly tapped. Owen inhales deeply, letting the foam tickle his nose, then lifts the beer to his lips, savouring the heavenly taste that would bite the back of his tongue with the soothing warmth that makes everything bearable and leave his belly purring for more.
He takes a sip and oh God, yes, he’s already in Heaven. Bloody marvellous, this stuff. Like sunbeams and melted gold. Nothing beats the warm heavy buzz of a good ale. Or three.
He lowers the half-drained tankard with a grateful moan. ‘Oh my God,’ he breathes, his habitual prayer of relief. ‘That’s beautiful.’ Almost worth tomorrow’s hangover.
Afterwards he finds a spare attic bedroom at the crowded inn two streets away, Roach stabled nearby. Top floor, tucked beneath the roof with rafters criss-crossing the cramped space. But it’s warm and dry. A soft bed. A door that locks. Perfect. Better than sleeping under damp trees, that’s for damn sure. The innkeeper is a scowling discontented young woman with flashing green eyes and a loud, grating voice. As Owen unpacks his meagre belongings he can still hear her two floors below, laying down the law on some lingering drunks downstairs. He winces. Feisty landlady.
Once the last singing drunkard has stumbled off down the street, she comes to his bedchamber later and asks, ‘D’you want anything?’ No thanks, he says, but soon after she returns, peering around the door with a smouldering gaze: ‘What, really nothing?’ Her raven curls tumble to her shoulders, a bodice strap hanging artfully loose.
‘All right,’ he yields, pulling back his bedsheet, ‘stay, then. But keep your voice down.’
‘No promises,’ she smirks, approaching with swaying hips. Her blue nightgown puddles at her feet as her eyes rake hungrily over the hard scarred planes of his chest. Noisy she might be, but safer than a back-alley wench. ‘I ain’t made of glass,’ she giggles, stifling a moan as his hand drifts lower and begins to stroke. ‘Now get cracking with that sword of yours, warrior.’
And well, with a creamily naked offer like that eager and waiting … who is he to deny a woman’s pleasure?
‘Yes ma’am, whatever you say, ma’am,’ Owen snarks, before her willing arms pull him down, down, down.
Owen wakens to the music of birdsong.
Dawn sunlight spills over the windowsill. A woman is singing downstairs – perhaps some maid cheerfully sweeping – and for a moment he’s back home in the Belmont Manor, with his sisters Sonia and Eve clattering about and giggling. His father’s rumbling laughter as he plays with the fireside dogs downstairs. His mother combing her long brown tresses and humming next door. His whole life stretched before him. But no: bathed in sunlight, he moves each limb; no fresh cuts or bruises. Just old aching scars. He’s here. Reikstadt. A new day.
His landlady is curled up against him, warm and cosy and deliciously naked, her usually-stern face relaxed into sweetness as she dozes. Owen smiles up at the ceiling, savouring the gentle blissful glow of a golden morning, utterly at peace. All is right with the world –
Until his bedmate mumbles, turns over and flops a hand over his face.
‘Huh. Guess I’m awake now,’ he mutters.
‘Mmrn, shu’ up,’ she burbles drowsily.
‘Er … sorry?’
She pats his cheek. ‘Mmm … good boy.’
Gently Owen disentangles himself and slips out of bed. As soon as he’s up, his landlady instinctively shifts into his warm imprint left behind. Burrowing down into the rumpled blankets like a snake gone to ground. Her fingers scuff over empty sheets, there’s a muffled grunt and one bleary eye cracks open.
‘Not leaving yet.’ Owen squeezes her shoulder. ‘Just gunna piss.’
She hums and snuggles down into the blankets, smiling as she falls back to sleep. A trip down the hallway’s out of the question, so he lurches over to the nearby chamberpot and relieves himself, kidneys aching in gratitude.
When he eases back under the covers, the landlady hooks a bare leg over his knee and pulls him closer.
‘Hey,’ he teases, stroking her cheek. ‘Gotta wake up soon.’
‘Nnngnh,’ she groans, nuzzling for warmth. ‘Ten more minutes.’
‘Stuff to do. Rent to collect. People to serve. Drunks to turf out.’
He chuckles fondly. ‘I know. I’m so sorry.’
There’s a dangerous pause.
Eyes closed, she mutters, ‘If that’s a knife in your pocket … I’m going to murder you with it.’
He grins. ‘Happy to see you too.’
‘I’m a scary landlady,’ she warns darkly, voice scratchy with sleep. ‘I can do it.’
‘Uh-huh.’ He presses a gentle kiss to her shoulder. ‘Lady in the streets, beast in the sheets. Got it.’
The silence stretches, warm and comfortable. Eventually she cracks open muzzy eyes and squints. ‘You’re still here?’
Owen hums, snuggles closer and wraps an arm around her waist.
Yeah. Somehow. He is.
© 2021 | Tom Burton