Chapter 3 - The Right Road, Or What’s Left
The strong wind picked up sand grains, dry grass, and the occasional insect and threw them against E’mani Karos’ face. The dust storm out in this arid part of the Silent Plains did not, however, do anything to deflect the burning sun overhead. It just made the sand hurt more.
E’mani squinted through the scarf tied around his face at the outpost on the horizon. He was far out from the city of Thronefast and, unless the Queen was sparing no expense on his capture, they should not have made it out here with news of his treason. If anything good could be said for this wind, it afforded him the chance to hide behind his veil.
The guards on the wooden walls were not wearing the King’s colors as E’mani walked through the gates. These were local guards, most likely the hired defenses of the regent of the town. The walls were high enough to block some of the dust stirred up by the windstorm and the town spread itself out before him. A large water well was in the center of the town, covered up for the duration of the storm. There was a mix of miners, traders, and a few aristocrats meandering in the doorways of the dozen or so large stores and halls on the main thoroughfare.
E’main adjusted his mask as he walked toward what appeared to be a tavern of sorts. His three-day journey from the outskirts of Avendyr’s Pass was quickly paced, and lacking in stops for real food. He had put as much space between himself and the city as he possibly could. If he just had time to think, he was sure that a solution would present itself. The slatted door creaked as he swung it open for a moment before quickly shutting it behind him to keep out the weather.
“Fine day, stranger,” said the man behind the bar. He was a burly man; the large beard on his face ran down his oversized chest. His arms bulged on both sides of his thick frame. He looked more like a cage fighter than a barkeep.
“Yes, quite nice weather you have here,” E’mani replied, trying to act as normally as he could. “The kiln this town was built in must make for good business for a tavern like this.”
“Well, the more dirt I can throw in one’s face, the more I can charge to wash it off, or wash it down, depending on how long one stays around. It’s called job security,” the barkeep joked.
E’mani laughed along while looking for the answer to the man’s subtle question about this stranger’s intentions in town. This was a small enough place that this tavern owner probably knew everyone and their cousins the next town down the road. He scrambled for more time to figure out his immediate plan.
“Well, it’s hard to fit through the gates if I eat as much as I feel like I should. I guess it will depend on how much food I can fit in my belly,” he said. The barkeep was already bringing him a cup of water and a beer. E’mani figured it was the custom out here.
He took a second while the barkeep was pouring to look around the room. It was mid-afternoon so he figured most were still out working wherever it is that these people earned a living. A few of the townsfolk had settled in to ride out the wind. A lady in a very ornate blue dress sat in the corner with a much older man; her father maybe. Well, he thought, not holding hands like that. She must be mining him for his gold. A pair of larger men sat on the other side of the room staring at their mugs, looking tired as if they had built a wall in a day. Their clothes were not dry and sand covered, but seemed sooty, almost like they’d been digging holes in moist dirt. There were no wanted signs up anywhere in the main parlor, and no guards or soldiers. He breathed in deep and blew out a fraction of his stress. He turned back around to the bar and pulled his scarf down to his neck.
“Here you go, soldier,” the barkeep said.
E’mani froze. The barkeep didn’t seem like he was calculating or afraid. Was it just a colloquialism? Did he recognize him with his mask down now? All the stress that had just left his body came running back in.
“Soldier, eh? I really look dapper enough?” E’mani joked, trying to feel out his intentions now.
“I just figured, with the haircut and all. We get a few passing through here on their holiday, trying to get back to mama’s home cooking.”
E’mani learned years ago that when needing to lie for secrecy, telling mostly the truth is the best way to convince someone.
“You know, I always wanted to be a soldier, always had an affection for their service,” E’mani smiled as he spoke to the barkeep as charmingly as he could. “But, this haircut is about as close as I would like to be to one nowadays. It’s a little too late for me now.”
“Bah, you’re not that old,” the barkeep chimed in, none the wiser. “Sure, you’re no bright-eyed youth, but you look strong enough, in decent shape. Never give up on your dreams, until you wife tells you to, haha.”
E’mani raised his glass to that and guzzled down the cup full of water. He felt the sand grains loosen from the sides of his throat as he emptied the cup.
“Looks like you’ve been out there a while. Where are you coming from?”
“Thronefast,” E’mani replied. “I was trying to shave some time off my travels to have more for my holiday. It’s a lot tougher out there than I had anticipated.”
“It always is,” the barkeep replied.
As the barkeep walked off, E’mani’s thoughts began to clear. He hadn’t taken time to assess his position and formulate a proper battle plan. The crown wants him captured or dead. He knows it has to do with the grotesque things going on beneath the streets of Thronefast. All he’s ever known is how to be a good soldier, but that life seems to be burned up like so much hay with no livestock to eat it. He has no friends, no family, hardly any money, and no source of income. If he worked for some out-of-the-way town like this as a guard, it would only be a matter of time before he gained notoriety and was spotted by someone who knew of him. He couldn’t bring himself to work for more sinister parties where his anonymity could still be upheld.
But, beyond all of his present troubles, the one that set hardest on his chest was the betrayal he felt from the crown he had been loyal to his entire life. Someone else’s misdeeds have ruined his life all because he found out about it. And the shining example of virtue that he held the crown to stand for was now tainted with a devious aura about it. He protected this… lie. He believed it. He killed for it. How many lives had he taken for virtue’s sake, believing he was on the side of right. And if that wasn’t right, then what was? Where was true virtue to be found?
“Hey, stranger,” the barkeep looked over at him, “something bothering you? It looks like you’re staring miles down into that beer. Say, what’s your name?”
“Name’s… Devon. Devon Wellstead,” E’mani said. He wished he’d spent some more time on a cover story. Devon Wellstead?
“Well met, Devon. I’m Daniel Breythine. Welcome to Burrow’s Den,” the barkeep said. He walked over opposite the bar from ‘Devon’, sensing that there was a sadness about him.
“You know, it’s not anyone’s business to know the affairs of a man, except maybe his tender. You look like you may need some advice.”
E’mani, for whatever reason: fate, insecurity, loneliness; he felt as if this barkeep could at least help relieve him of some of his stress by being a friendly ear. The only problem was he knew he couldn’t share anything, no matter how much he wanted to.
“Woman trouble,” Daniel prodded. “Family issues? There’s plenty of both to go around, that’s for sure. I remember one time my nephew Coban…”
“I’m lost,” E’mani cut in. “I… I… am lost from my purpose, my road; not in a literal sense. I have recently met a divergence in my plans and reality that may never be corrected, and I feel my purpose has been stripped from me.”
“Ahhh… I see,” Daniel grabbed at his chin. “So much deeper than a lover’s tiff.” He looked away for a moment trying to find the right words.
“You know, a man’s purpose can’t be taken away by another, just as this cup can not lose its cupness. Folks may refuse to use it, store it in a cupboard, but until it is destroyed and unfit to do things cups do, it’s purpose resides in it.” Daniel grabbed the water cup E’mani had drained and began washing it.
He continued, “Now, I assume can misplace his purpose, but it would be like anything else a man loses. He set it down somewhere and forgot where he left it. My advice to you, lad, is to find the place that your purpose resides, where you keep it, and go there and see if you can’t find it.”
E’mani listened intently. He had many mentors over the course of his life, never having a father of his own. He learned along the way how to listen, eat the meat of what was said, and spit out the bones. And something this man was saying resonated with him.
“Go back to where my heart drew its purpose…”
“Only you know where that is.”
“And if I can’t find my purpose there again?”
Daniel paused for a moment, then smiled. He walked over to Daniel with the same water cup in his hand and set it down in front of him.
“That’ll be 12 copper pieces,” he said, nudging the cup toward him.
E’mani dropped some coins into the cup. He grinned slightly, realizing what he was doing.
“You’re pretty good at your job, sir,” E’mani said. “I need a room for one night, and a week’s rations for the morning.
“Yes, sir. As you wish,” Daniel said, still smiling.
A man busted through the back door behind the counter carrying boxes of supplies and dropped them down heavily onto the bar.
Hey, boss,” Daniel turned to the man. “I was just serving our new customer here.”
“Thank you, sir,” the man said, beginning to empty the boxes. “I really appreciate you taking the time. Anything I can do for the family?”
Wait,” E’mani spoke up, curiously, “you’re not the barkeep?” He looked over at Daniel who was just shrugging in the corner, helping put the goods away.
“Oh, no, sir,” said the other man. “Thomas Brows, proprietor of the Rusty Pick, at your service. This is our esteemed noble, Lord Breythine. His family settled this town. Best man you’ll ever meet. Knighted by the king, rest in peace.”
E’mani smiled again and chuckled to himself. “Well met, Mr. Brows.” He turned back to Daniel and joked, “I’m still expecting those rations, barkeep.”
To be continued...