Orteg slammed open the door of his hut, a gust of cold wet air following him into the sitting room. The meager fire his wife Dashani had managed to coax from their remaining splinters of wood was almost extinguished by the blast. Orteg, groping with his foot, managed to shut the door behind him without dropping the armful of wood he carried. His three children huddled beneath a moth-eaten bearskin rug beside the smudge of fire. Their mother looked up as the door latched and Orteg stomped over to the fireplace, leaving muddy footprints in his wake. He dropped the pile of soggy logs and wiped his hands on his dirty trousers with a disgruntled sigh.
“Could you get no more?” Dashani asked, her voice sharp and accusatory. She prodded at the pile of wood with a finger. “These’re soaked through.”
Orteg didn’t answer. He had gone into the corner of the sitting room which served as their kitchen and appeared to be tearing it apart, tossing things from their places onto the floor where they rolled until his feet kicked them aside. The children withdrew further into their bearskin sanctuary, becoming little more than brown lumps as the clankings and crashings continued. Dashani pushed herself to her feet with a sound of exasperation and limped toward him. Her leg had been savagely gashed in a fall and the infection was beginning to smell. Orteg attempted in vain to withdraw from her even as he upended a basket.
“What in the devil are you doing?” she snapped, leaning against the counter as he reached behind a cupboard. “You know no whiskey remains after you drank it all last night. Is this ache not enough to remind you?” She reached up and rapped her knuckles on his skull.
“Devil take you, woman!” he snarled, slapping her hand away and stepping back. “Curse your infernal tongue, why not use it to clean out that festering hole in your leg, that you might stand a prayer of it remaining, and leave me in peace?”
“Do not be speaking to me that way, Orteg Bluenote,” Dashani shrilled, waving a finger in his face. “If you had been better than a no ‘count lazy good-for-nothing drunk you would have seen the morning’s sunrise and I’d have not needed to be crossing the ravine to check your traps, that we might have food for another night for the children you were so keen to put in me that you now scarcely look at! This is all your doing and don’t you forget it!”
Orteg’s hand moved like lightning, connecting with Dashani’s face and sending her sprawling. The lumps under the bearskin let out small cries, mixing with her own cry of pain as her back collided with the bed frame in the other corner of the hut’s single room. Tears rolled down her face unbidden as she cowered on the floor while her husband advanced on her, roaring “SILENCE! By all the gods that are, woman, you will give me peace or I will take it!” He raised a hand again and when she flinched but said nothing, he grunted in satisfaction.
“Snake-tongued devil bitch,” he flung over his shoulder as he left, allowing another cold blast of wet air into the hut. This time, the fire went out. The children began to weep in earnest, their cries joining in with their mother’s as all four sobbed into the uncaring darkness.
Orteg stumped through the woods, his feet following the path they had made with no conscious thought required from him. The palm of his hand stung where it had collided with Dashani’s face and he flexed it, relishing its sting. It was difficult for Orteg to remember the fiery young peasant girl he had fingered in the hayloft and impregnated that same summer. Though it had been less than three years ago it seemed as though a lifetime. Now, all he could think was…
He heard the sound of laughter and music up ahead and hastened his footsteps, his mouth-watering. The tavern was well lit, cheery and inviting. Orteg slipped into its comforting bosom and once again, all his cares evaporated.
Hours later, Orteg stumbled up to the bar, nearly losing his footing and catching himself on it. “Barkeep, more whiskey,” he slurred, rapping his mug on the bar. Holding it out, his bloodshot eyes roved around the bar, taking in its clientele and sifting them for availability, desirability, ease of access and past experience. There was the usual menagerie of rough trade; farmers with dirt crusted so thick on their faces that what lay beneath was a mystery, hags seeking companionship, tavern wenches looking pretty but resigned, the usual riffraff. Further down the bar, a trio of dwarves were laughing uproariously at something. A table of what appeared to be elves were deep in conversation at a table in the corner, a beautiful blade on the table between them.
Orteg dismissed them as immaterial as his eye made contact with one of the tavern wenches he had known many times, frequently when Dashani’s less than welcoming nature had sent him to the tavern. Sarina had just returned to the main room from the upstairs, where private business was transacted. She straightened her bodice as a man followed her, a silly grin on his features and walking unsteadily. He went to kiss her and she turned her head with a smile, deflecting it to her cheek as she winked at Orteg with one soft brown eye. The man chortled and pecked her on the cheek before stumbling to the bar. Behind him, Sarina beckoned to Orteg, sliding a finger down the center of her décolletage and licking her lips. Draining his glass, Orteg stood and lurched toward the girl, bouncing off another patron with a curse. Attempting to bypass the stranger proved impossible, for he moved to block Orteg.
“Away, fool,” Orteg muttered thickly, attempting to walk through the man. “Can’t you see what awaits?”
“I would speak with you, Bluenote,” said the figure from beneath its cowl. “What I have to say to you, I daresay you will find more engaging than pleasures of the flesh.”
Orteg, who could think of no such thing, grunted laughter and attempted again to pass the figure. “I doubt that very much, sir.” The tavern wench grinned, lifted her skirt a little and turned to mount the stairs.
“Son of Wendell, you must heed me!”
The dead king’s name floated before Orteg’s bloodshot eyes for a moment before vanishing. Sarina smiled prettily, lifting her skirt still higher. Calf gave way to thigh and Orteg felt his own member responding. She grinned and rubbed a hand over her crotch.
“Outta my way,” Orteg grunted, shouldering the figure aside. The world had dwindled to the tavern wench and Orteg smiled oafishly at her. “‘m comin’ with you.”
“It is so,” Sarina said with a musical laugh, dropping her skirt to take his hand, rubbing her other hand under his nose. “You like this?” Her smell overwhelmed him.
“Yuh,” he said, his tongue thick and his hands busy. She slapped at them. “Come,” she said, and turned, ascending the stairs. In a stupor of lust, Orteg followed, panting.
She slipped into the first door at the top of the stairs and with a giggle ran to the bed. Flouncing upon it, she looked at him prettily as he stumbled through the doorway. He shut the door behind him, turning the key in the lock as he grinned, absently rubbing his crotch.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, her voice demure as she patted the bed beside her.
“Sure am,” he slurred, and with a stagger, fell onto the bed atop her.
As he did, the door shuddered as it was splintered by a savage blow. Orteg floundered on the bed, the girl beneath him, unable to get his balance. With another mighty crash, the door caved inward and three scrawny figures on all fours scrabbled into the room. Orteg screamed, trying to get his feet underneath him and stand but Sarina held on, her fingers clutching at his back with sudden needlelike claws. She grinned at him, and Orteg felt a whole new level of fear. Her teeth were now long and sharp, her eyes feline slits. Her expression made him feel like prey.
“Son of the king, I have long awaited my day of reckoning with you,” she rasped, in a voice unlike her own.
The next moment, he was forcefully yanked off of her and thrown to the ground by two of the thin figures. The third stepped hard on his chest, knocking the breath from him, as the other two held his arms out to his sides. Orteg thrashed his lower half around for a moment until the increasing pressure on his chest compelled him to cease.
“That’s better,” Sarina said, rising to her feet and moving toward him. “Many years ago, your kin did away with me. Your sister, to be precise. She stabbed me and I bled to death, or so she thought. Now I shall have the pleasure of doing away with the last of her bloodline.” She raised a hand, clawed fingers reaching for Orteg’s throat.
From the doorway, a firm voice said “Not while I breathe, Esemli, Fairy of Darkness. Stand away from the king’s rightful heir!”
Orteg jerked his head to the side, seeing the hooded figure which had attempted to detain him on his way upstairs, even as his brain sought to interpret the words he had heard and make sense of them.
The fairy wench spun, hissing. “Fool! Leave, while you are still able. This does not concern you.” She pointed a clawed finger at Orteg. “The man is mine!”
“It concerns us all, and he belongs to the kingdom. Now begone!” thundered the hooded man and made a downward slashing gesture with both hands. The figure standing on Orteg’s chest was knocked back against the wall. Blood spurted from its nose and it made desperate moaning noises, eyes bulging before slumping over onto its face.
Orteg felt the other two release him as air flooded back into his lungs. The fairy wench screamed and leaped for him just as Orteg felt something pass him with frightful speed and strike the woman between the eyes. They met Orteg’s as she flew backward, he seeing the feral slits return to their normal soft brown and her teeth retreat from their sharp points just as she hit the wall with a sickening crunch. Sliding to the ground, she did not move.
With fierce chattering noises, the other two shapes charged at Zavier. The latter raised one hand before him and shut his eyes, screwing up his face in concentration. The air grew very hot, stinging Orteg’s face, causing him to screw up his eyes as the two shapes halted as though they had been frozen. When Orteg opened his eyes again, they were gone, leaving only shimmering air where their bodies had been.
“They are gone,” Zavier said, breathing hard, “But they will return. My power will only remove them for a short time.” He gestured. “Now, come. We must go. There are things to be said which should not be said here.” Swirling his cloak around him, he was out the door and gone before Orteg could do more than gape.
After a moment, Orteg blundered to his feet. Trying not to look at the two dead bodies in the room, he stumbled to the door and looked out warily. Down on the main floor, immobile in the sea of bodies in motion, stood the hooded man, staring at Orteg.
His mouth formed words: