Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf

by Rab Foster




Fists smashed against the outside of the huge timber doors that sealed the town off from the night.

After a minute, a lantern flared in a hut positioned by the inside of one of the also-huge stone door-jambs. After a second minute, a guard emerged from the hut gripping the lantern in one hand. His other hand struggled to button a pair of britches that’d just been pulled up over his spindly legs. He stumbled behind the doors, muttering, “Right, right, I hear you, I’m coming… damn you!”

He found a bolt at face-level in the middle of one door, yanked the bolt back and yanked aside a wooden flap. This revealed a small glassless window with criss-crossing bars. “We’re closed,” he spat through the window. “Read the sign. Closed to everybody except authorised visitors at sundown. Closed to absolutely everybody at the end of the first night-quarter.” He looked up and checked the stars’ positions above the ridge of the town wall. “Which has now ended.”

“Let me in,” croaked a voice and a face materialised on the far side of the bars. Despite the grid of bar-shadows that the lantern cast on it, the face was visibly young. “You have to!”

Though the guard felt cranky at being woken up like this, he couldn’t help chuckling. “Oh no I don’t. I don’t have to let you in at all!”

“This is a matter of importance,” argued the youth. “Vital importance. The most important matter in the world just now. So let me in!
The guard stopped chuckling, no longer amused by this whippersnapper’s insolence but angered by it. He took a deep breath and was about to tell the youth where he could go when, through the window, past the youth’s head and in front of the entrance doors, he saw something. A light flickered in the darkness and momentarily illuminated a strange silhouette.

The guard’s puzzlement must have shown in his face, because the young man on the far side of the doors immediately glanced back over his shoulder, cried out in panic and flung himself away.

More light manifested itself – not a flicker this time but a blinding yellow bolt that shrieked out of the darkness and impacted explosively against the door.

Outside, when the youth raised his head from the ground and looked at the door again, he saw that the hole with the barred window had been replaced by a hole considerably bigger. The bars were gone and the jagged timber around its edges were encrusted with brightly-glowing embers. The youth promptly sprang up, dived through the hole and landed on the flagstones that formed the threshold of the town of Thoborok.

The guard’s lantern had vanished too, but many burning door-fragments covered the ground around him and he had no difficulty making out the scene. He was in a small entrance-square with, at its far end, a broad straight street leading towards the town centre.

Nearby lay a pair of spindly legs, in a pair of unbuttoned britches, which’d partly slid down to reveal a pair of grimy long-johns. Nothing was attached to those legs.

Again the youth sprang up. He ran across the square and had barely entered the street when another shriek and lightning-like flash occurred behind him. This time they were followed by the creak and crash of a huge door, or what remained of it, as it toppled back off its hinges.

Though hobbled by exhaustion, he made himself run faster. At the same time his head swung from side to side, searching the houses along the left and right of the street for a lit window, a lit doorway, a sign that somebody who could offer him shelter was still awake. But he saw only darkness and shadows. Thoborok was obviously a town whose citizens went early to bed.

Then he heard a clatter of horse-hooves on the cobbles behind him. He looked back and saw distant yellow sparks leaping about the darkness at ground level. At the same time his nose caught a whiff of sulphur.

He looked the other way again and suddenly saw evidence that not everyone was in bed at this hour – for in front of him were the lights of the Speckled Wolf.


*****



The youth sprinted through the doorway of the Speckled Wolf and for a moment was so disorientated by the tavern’s warmth and lantern-light that he forgot his predicament. He stopped and stared at the scene.

He was in a room with an oblong-shaped counter standing like an island in its centre. Running along the middle of the space within the counter was a high gantry, both sides of which supported many shelves laden with corked bottles and flagons. A man in his mid-fifties stood between the gantry and counter. He had hair and a beard that were long, grey and stringy and he wore a stained apron that a big ale-belly pushed out from his waist. The man looked back at him sourly.

Unknowingly echoing the late guard at the town doors, the landlord of the Speckled Wolf said: “We’re closed.”

Then he yanked on a rope at the end of the gantry, which hung from a bell mounted on its top corner. He turned and glowered across the counter at a final group of customers. Above the clanging bell, he roared, “Will you finish your drinks now please? We’re closed! Get out! Go home!”

Just three customers remained in the tavern. They sat at a table below the second of three windows in the wall overlooking the street. Two customers were collapsed unconscious over the table-top. The third waved his arms feebly and protested in a slurred voice while a woman attempted to take a tankard from him and empty its contents into a dented bucket.

The woman was stocky and muscles bulged in her arm as it held the heavy slop-bucket. Her hair was dyed a carroty orange and her cheeks glowed with rouge. When she addressed the customer – “You heard him, get your pathetic drunken carcass out of here!” – her bold tone suggested to the youth that she was the landlord’s wife, the lady of the establishment.

The room contained two more people. A stage took up the far corner of the side with the three windows. On it, a man with a haughty face and thinning hair was dismantling a music stand. A long flute with silver-ringed holes rested across a stool behind him. Meanwhile, below the stage, a woman who was shorter but even stouter than the landlord’s wife was swishing a broom across the floorboards, cinders of smoked tobacco and globs of chewed tobacco scurrying ahead of the broom-twigs. Her face was coarse and partly covered by tattoos. If she wasn’t a pure troll, thought the youth, she was surely half or quarter one.

On the other side of the counter, the rear of the room was empty, though its table-tops were still crowded with uncollected jugs, tankards and goblets. Instead of a stage, its far corner contained an alcove. A circular board, maybe an old cask-lid, hung on a wall inside the alcove. Painted on the board were different-coloured concentric circles. Three objects resembling short fat arrows protruded from the smallest and innermost circle, which was red. The youth had heard something about this strange tavern-game. Supposedly, it was called darts and was popular among the trolls.

Then the youth remembered the danger he was in. He approached the counter and pleaded, “Help me. You must help me. I’m being hunted – ”

The landlord turned back to him and snarled, “I said we’re closed.” Then with slightly less hostility he added, “And we don’t do accommodation either. We used to but last year we had to stop. Orders from the brewery.” He nodded towards the bottom of the gantry and, over the counter, the youth saw that it contained a row of oak casks. Each cask rested on a trestle, had a tap stuck into its end and had the emblem of a raven stamped on it in red ink. “I had no say in it. The Red Raven Brewery own this tavern and I’m just the tenant landlord. They make the decisions.”

The landlord spat contemptuously towards the nearest ale-cask. His name was Grud Scallon. The chief of the Red Raven Brewery was a man called Rothgar Ravunus. Grud and Ravunus had known each other for a long time. Before they’d entered the brewing-and-hospitality business, they’d been colleagues in a different line of work. Scallon’s opinion was that Ravunus had been a bastard then and was still a bastard now.

Then from the darkness outside the tavern’s doorway came the noise of horses, though the hooves clanged so harshly against the cobblestones and the whinnying was so shrill and squealing that the noise suggested a busy ironworks as much as it suggested animals. The youth groaned and turned round from the counter. Flashes of out-of-sight yellow sparks lit the doorway he’d just dashed through. The air in the tavern began to smell of sulphur.

Then a figure in a black hooded robe glided across the Speckled Wolf’s threshold.

On a chain round his neck the youth wore a golden pendant in the shape of an anvil. He grasped the pendant and hissed, “No, you won’t get it. Not while I live!”

Meanwhile, behind his counter, Grud Scallon gave a despairing sigh. “What’s wrong with people tonight? How many times do I have to say this? Listen, everybody – we’re closed!

The figure raised its head, the hood slid back and its face became visible. This was skull-like despite being covered in dry grey tissue and wrinkled transparent skin. A worm, as big as a snake and luminously white, was in the process of wriggling out of one of its eye sockets and wriggling in between the teeth in the lipless mouth below. Then the figure raised its right arm and the sleeve of the robe slid back too. A hand appeared – a glove of shrivelled skin, containing spindly finger-bones and desiccated tissue.

Grud Scallon cleared his throat. “Excuse me. Excuse me. We have rules here, you know.” And he pointed to a sign hanging on the wall beside the doorway. The sign said:

NO WEAPONS

NO BRAWLING

NO USE OF MIND-ALTERING SUBSTANCES (APART FROM ALCOHOL)

ABSOLUTELY NO SORCERY


The figure ignored him. It pointed its withered hand at the youth and with a screech and a gush of yellow sparks a bolt of energy flew from its fingertips. For the second time that night the youth flung himself sideways. The bolt missed him and there was a bang and a cloud of smoke as it hit the counter instead.

Grud peered through the smoke and saw that his countertop had suddenly acquired a hole a yard in diameter.

Again the landlord sighed. It was a long time since he’d enjoyed anything that could be described as a good day, but even by his standards today had been a truly bad one. Firstly, this morning in the cellar, he’d put spiles into four casks that the brewery had delivered a half-year ago with instructions that they be stored for six months because they contained extra-strong ale needing time to settle and mature. He’d discovered that the extra-strong ale was nothing of the sort because already the casks’ contents were as flat and unappetising as a troll’s laundry-water.

Then there was his unwise decision to allow Fuyndar the Flutist to perform tonight. As soon as that idiot had started warbling, a good half of the customers had downed their drinks and left.

But the worst thing had been the arrival of a message in the afternoon. Grud had stuck the parchment onto a hook on the gantry and he glanced at it now, still disbelieving what was written on it. At the bottom of the message, decorated with pompous loops and tails, was a signature: Rothgar Ravunus.

Things had been financially tough recently. And he had fallen slightly behind with his rent payments to the Red Raven Brewery. But for that bastard to use it as an excuse to turf him out…

Thus, Grud already had a lot of rage inside him when the hooded figure blew up his counter. He didn’t immediately show his rage, however. Instead, with slow, measured movements, he turned around and reached out and grasped the bell-rope again.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then a ripple ran up the rope to the bell, the screws in the bell-mount shrieked as they tore themselves out of the gantry, and the bell jumped free into the air.

The woman with the orange hair and rouged face let go of the slop bucket and it crashed onto the floor. “No, Grud,” she yelled. “You promised you wouldn’t do this stuff anymore!”

Ignoring her, Grud raised his arm and held it steady above him. In his hand, the rope began to spin faster and faster, like a lasso. It spun so fast that it became a blurred whirlpool, with the bell forming a flashing silver circle around the whirlpool’s rim.

Then the rope and bell left Grud’s hand and streaked over the wrecked counter to the figure’s head. The bell moved with such force and the skull-faced head was so decrepit that the head disintegrated when the bell struck it. Bell and rope continued their flight and slammed into a wall, bounced back and ended up on the floor amid a scattering of grey head-fragments. By now the bell glowed with a ferocious heat. Nearby, the figure remained standing – headless.

After a few moments, another of the giant luminous worms began to ooze out of the figure’s neck-stump.

Grud snapped his fingers. The rope writhed on the floor and lashed up against the figure. Again, the power animating it was immense. The rope sliced through the figure’s waist, sending its torso and arms tumbling in one direction and its legs, wrapped in the lower half of its robe, toppling in the other.

Grud realised that he now had the attention of everyone in the tavern. Fuyndar the Flutist stood open-mouthed and motionless on the stage, the flute and a long velvet-lined flute-case hovering before him in his frozen hands. The drunkard who’d been quarrelling with Grud’s wife had suddenly stopped quarrelling. Even the two drunkards asleep over the table-top were showing signs of stirring. Grud decided to use the moment to his advantage. “Right!” he bellowed. “No more warnings! Get out of here – or I’ll zap the lot of you!”

From the floor at the base of counter, the youth said quietly, “There’s more of them.”

Grud pointed at the three drunkards. “You, you and you! Get out now!” Then he pointed at Fuyndar the Flutist. “You too! Get out!”

“But,” stammered the flutist, “what about my money? You haven’t paid me yet – ”

Grud almost danced with rage. “Payment? You should be paying me, you tuneless moron! Thanks to you I’ve probably done the worst business tonight since the summer when the town was gripped by the Amber Plague!”

From the floor the youth repeated, “There’s more of them.”

Grud leaned over the counter. “And you,” he snarled, “had better get out of this tavern quick. Before you get kicked out. Why, I’ll boot you out so hard that you’ll clear the top of the town wall – ”

Though most of the Speckled Wolf’s interior was shabby, the three windows lining the street-side wall – high and arched and filled with mosaics of stained glass – were incongruously grand. There was no external light now and the pieces of glass in each mosaic were dark, but the pictures they formed were still discernible. They showed three terrifying creatures of the same species stalking across three different landscapes, a range of jagged mountains, a dense forest and an icy wasteland. The creatures strode on their hind legs, half-human and half-wolf. Their tails were thick and curling, their jaws fanged and slavering.

Now the window furthest from the door exploded inwards. A figure on a massive black horse crashed through and landed on the floor in front of the stage. The troll-girl barely escaped being flattened. She retreated to the counter, holding the broom before her like a pike, her hair and the broom-twigs glittering with shards of glass. The rider was another of the black-robed creatures. It wrenched the reins and heeled the horse round, its great bulk knocking over chairs and tables. When it was facing Grud, the rider released the reins and raised two grey rotted hands –

Grud gestured at the slop-bucket that his wife had dropped. The bucket sprang up to the tavern’s rafters, descended and landed over the creature’s hooded head. The creature fired several energy bolts but because it was blinded none of them were on target. One tore away a corner of the gantry, another blew a chunk out of the back wall and another again flew past the troll-girl, burning off the head of her broom so that she was left holding a shaft ending in blackened splinters.

Grud pointed to the broom-shaft and it shot out of the girl’s hands, swept up and struck the creature’s chest so hard that it was plucked off the horse. The creature flew up with the shaft until it crashed into one of the rafters. There, the end of the shaft bored through the creature’s mouldering chest and into the rafter behind it, so that the creature was left impaled and dangling. The slop-bucket remained wedged over its head. Below, rider-less, the horse blundered round the end of the counter and into the empty back half of the room, smashing aside more furniture.

The youth jumped over the countertop, landed beside Grud and crouched there. The landlord glared down at him.

“You said there’re more of them outside?”

“Three,” confirmed the youth.

At that moment another two creatures came through the doorway. Like the first one, they entered without their horses, but already energy blazed out of their hands. Chairs, tables, jugs, tankards, floorboards, sections of wall exploded. By now, Grud’s wife and the troll-girl had followed the youth’s example, scrambled over the counter and found shelter behind it. The conscious drunkard had taken to hiding under his table but his two companions, Grud noticed, had wilted again and their heads were back against the table-top. That gave him an idea.

Soul usurpers,” he said and recited a short incantation and snapped his fingers.

Immediately the two slumbering drunkards jerked up onto their feet and headed towards the doorway. They moved with strange spasmodic steps, as if they were string-puppets operated by puppeteers who were themselves drunk. At the same time, two items sprang out of the gantry’s cutlery drawer, across the counter and into their right hands – knives nearly as long as swords.

They closed in on one of the creatures. As they approached, it fired bolts at them but somehow the drunkards had acquired acrobatic powers. They leapt into the air before the bolts reached them, somersaulted and landed on their feet elsewhere. Then they lashed forward with the knives and pierced the black robe and the rancid flesh beneath it.

“Right,” said Grud, his hair and beard moist with sweat now. “Animators.” Again he mouthed an incantation and snapped his fingers.

From the two surviving windows came sounds of cracking and breaking glass. Inside the windows, the two huge werewolves peeled themselves away from their mosaic backgrounds and stiffly lowered themselves onto the floor. Then they went creaking towards the front end of the tavern to do battle too. Grud got a sideways view of them as they passed – they became almost invisible thanks to the flatness of their glass bodies. A few yards further, the light of a wall-lantern shone through them and their pieces became gloriously coloured, their eyes and tongues a bloody red, their fur a sleek grey speckled with points of white.

They reached the other creature and slashed at it with their glass claws. However, they moved with less agility than the two possessed drunkards. Their only way of avoiding the energy bolts was to swivel, showing the creature the edges of their two-dimensional bodies and making themselves a hard-to-hit target. Before long, though, a bolt caught one of the werewolves and it vanished in a spray of shards.

Meanwhile, the creature that’d been skewered to a rafter by the broom-handle managed to wriggle free. It dropped and landed on its feet before the stage. Then it grabbed the sides of the slop-bucket and managed to wrench that off its head too.

Fuyndar the Flutist remained on the stage, paralysed. Seeing the creature below him, he croaked, “Grud… Grud!”

Grud spotted this new problem and pointed at Fuyndar. “You can make yourself useful too,” he growled. Immediately, something made Fuyndar raise his flute to his lips and start playing. He now played well, however. He played so astoundingly well that the creature in front of him began to dance – bewitched by the music issuing from the flute, whose player was himself bewitched. Jigging on the floor, its hands flapping helpless at its sides, the creature was no longer capable of firing energy bolts.

As he heard the music and watched the creature dance, Grud regretted not breaking his own rules. “Should’ve cast that spell earlier this evening,” he muttered.

Then another horse and black-robed rider leapt through one of the windows. Even before this horse’s hooves struck the floorboards, the creature on top was blasting energy. Grud threw himself down beside his wife, the troll and the youth. Above them, half of the gantry – and all the bottles, flagons, jars, tankards and goblets lining half of its shelves – disintegrated.

“Shit,” swore Grud as splinters of wood, particles of glass and fragments of pewter rained down on him. “This one’s good.”

Then he saw his wife crawling towards him on her hands and knees. Her mouth opened to say something but he got his words in first. “Look, there’s no point nagging me. I know I promised not to do this stuff again. But this is an emergency!”

But she wasn’t intent on scolding him. Instead, urgently, she said, “You remember how the farmers used to pay you to cast spells near harvest time? To enslave those sprites in the crop fields and put them to work and ensure a decent harvest?”

“Yes. And?”

“Up there!” She gestured at the surviving half of the gantry, where a shelf still contained a row of intact bottles.

“Whisky?”

“Made from?”

“Water? Yeast? Barley…? Oh, barley!” He sprang up from behind the counter and waved a hand along the bottles. “I bet there’s traces of barley sprites still inside them.” The bottles vibrated as their gold-tinted contents suddenly bubbled and frothed.

Above him, the creature pulled on the reins and steadied the horse, and again pointed its decayed hands towards Grud.

The corks and then the whisky shot out of the bottles. However, the bottles’ contents were no longer liquid in form. They’d turned into small hovering things that were partly clouds of golden vapour and partly balls of golden light. Tiny humanoid figures could be glimpsed inside them. Grud swung his arm towards the creature and the golden beings swarmed at it.

The creature gesticulated madly and energy blazed in all directions. Whenever a bolt struck a barley-sprite, there was an explosion that left nothing but a stench of boiled whisky. Finally, the last sprite had been blasted away. The creature remained unharmed. Its face grinned down at the counter. A luminous worm emerged from between its jaws and the worm’s mouth opened too, revealing a spiral of needle-like fangs.

Both the skull-faced creature and the fanged worm seemed to communicate the same message: “Is that the best you can do?

Grud’s wife shouted up, “You’ve still one left, Grud. Use it!”

And yes, one final bottle of whisky remained on the gantry shelf. It was a bottle of expensive 40-year-old Kelpieburn Malt that was there for display purposes only. Its contents weren’t for sale. This bottle Grud was holding onto.

“But that’s for the day when we save enough money to buy our own tavern,” he protested. “The day when we don’t have to worry about brewery interference ever again. Then we’ll open that bottle and pour ourselves two big drams and celebrate – ”

“Oh, don’t be stupid, Grud. You know I hate whisky.”

A tear glistening in his eye, Grud summoned a sprite from the Kelpieburn Malt bottle, a sprite three times as big and bright as its predecessors. He hurled it towards the creature.

The sprite struck it in the chest and a huge hole appeared there with a whoosh and a reek of burnt flesh. Through the hole, between the points of sundered ribs that jutted from its edges, it was possible to make out the tavern wall behind the creature.

Then it keeled off the horse and thumped down on the floor.

Again Grud looked towards the stage. The creature ensnared by the sound of Fuyndar’s flute continued to dance. However, Grud saw that three worms had crawled out from under the hem of its robe and were moving towards the stage, their fanged mouths opening and closing hungrily. Fuyndar could also see the worms approach. His face glistened with sweat, but he was unable to remove the flute from his lips, turn round and run.

Near the doorway, the creature battling the two possessed drunkards had received countless hacking blows from their knives. Its arms lay severed on the floor. Then one knife swept in an arc and the creature’s head was whacked away too. Headless and partly limbless, the creature dropped. The victorious soul usurpers departed from the two drunkards, leaving their proper souls back in charge of their bodies. The drunkards stumbled about in bewilderment, lacking any memory of what’d just happened. But they seemed soberer than they’d been five minutes earlier.

Meanwhile, the glass werewolf had savaged the other creature so badly that its robe and flesh hung in flitters. The werewolf’s claws sliced down one final time and the creature dropped in a torn heap. Then the animator left the werewolf too. It tipped over onto the floor beside the creature’s body and smashed into a thousand glittering pieces.

The three worms had squirmed up onto the stage and encircled Fuyndar. He expelled so much sweat that it dribbled from the end of his flute but still he couldn’t stop playing. The worms’ fanged mouths opened in readiness to bite… Grud flicked a hand towards the other corner, where the trolls’ dartboard hung in the alcove. The three darts freed themselves from the board and flew in a parabolic course over the remaining part of the gantry. They stabbed down – one, two, three – into the worms, nailing each of them to the stage-floor.

The three spitted worms writhed and became still. The creature jigged to Fuyndar’s music for a minute longer, then it flopped down and was equally still.

Grud pointed and released Fuyndar from the flute-playing spell. Beside him, the youth dared to raise his head above the countertop. “Dead?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Grud.

“But you only killed the parasites – ”

Symbiotes. These dark creatures and the organisms they carry in their bodies – worms, maggots, ticks, fleas – give off various forms of psychic energy. One feeds on the energy from the other. Can’t survive without it. So kill one and you kill the other.”

On either side of the counter, the two black horses milled around amid the debris. Eventually they found their way out through the doorway and into the night again.

The drunkard who’d remained awake during the battle emerged from under the table. He was suddenly able to speak without slurring. “Unbelievable,” he said. “I heard you telling stories in the tavern about what you’d done in the Sorcerers’ Guild, but… Well, I thought your stories were guff. Like the one about the seventeen-headed hydra you slew in the Whispering Marsh – ”

“It had nineteen heads,” said Grud.

“Seventeen heads the last time I heard the story,” insisted the drunkard. “And fifteen heads the second last time I heard it.”

“Morlanus,” said Grud in a quiet but menacing voice. “We’re closed. Time you and your friends went home.”

During his combat with the creature one of the other drunkards had had his left hand blown off by an energy bolt. Now he held up the wrist-stump, cauterised by the bolt’s heat, in front of his watery eyes. “What happened?” he burbled. “I’ve done stupid things when I’ve been intoxicated but I’ve never done anything like this!”

“Look on the bright side,” said Morlanus as he took the drunkard by his maimed arm. “At least it wasn’t the hand you do your drinking with.” The other drunkard took him by his other arm and the three of them tottered out through the door.

Fuyndar was shaking violently but he managed to fit his flute into its case. Ashen-faced, he followed the drunkards out of the tavern. He didn’t pause to ask Grud about payment.

For a time Grud, his wife and the troll-girl stood contemplating the damage done to their tavern – the wrecked counter, truncated gantry, smashed furniture and glassless windows, the floor, walls and ceiling pitted and furrowed from energy bolts, the wooden splinters, glass fragments and broken masonry covering the floor. Finally, the troll opened a cupboard, located an undamaged broom and began to sweep up – a task the youth guessed would take several days.

Meanwhile, Grud said quietly: “What a mess.”

“And that,” lamented his wife, “is why there are rules! Why when you left the Guild, you made a vow not to use sorcery any more. To prevent mayhem and carnage like this happening in the ordinary world!”

“Hold on, I only used sorcery because someone else used it first. I only reacted!” For a moment his face was clouded – then it cleared as he hit on an explanation. “And I’ll tell you who the culprit was. Rothgar bloody Ravunus! And he made that vow too when he retired as Guild president. In fact, because of his seniority, the vow applied to him even more. What a nasty old shit! Fancy summoning up a mob of mercenary demons and sending them round tonight to get heavy with us!”

Grud turned towards the youth. “I suppose you encountered them while they were on their way here and did something to annoy them. Just your luck that you ran into the Speckled Wolf for help – the very place they were heading for anyway!”

Then he sank down, parked his elbows on a surviving section of countertop and cradled his face in his hands. In a dejected voice he said, “What was Rothgar Ravunus thinking? How could he be so mean, so stupid? I know him and the brewery want to get the tavern back from us, but now all they’re going to get is a ruin… And just when I was starting to have ideas about how we could generate some money at the last minute and pay what we owe in rent and avoid eviction… The pub quiz-evenings used to be popular – we could’ve reinstated those…”

His wife came across and laid a hand on his shoulder. “And we could’ve organised a few theme nights,” she added sadly. “The punters love dressing up as goblins and sea-creatures and things… I could’ve worn my old mermaid costume…”

“And,” said Grud, “what’s that new game all the trolls are playing? Dominos? Yes, we could’ve hosted a dominos tournament…”

The youth gazed at the five soily mounds across the tavern’s floor. These were the black compost into which the robes, flesh and bones of his five pursuers had already decayed. Lying amid that compost were dead worms, the glow fading from their squiggling bodies. “They weren’t mercenary demons,” he announced.

Grud straightened up from the counter. “What?”

“They were known as the Five Horsemen of the Abyss. A different and higher order of infernal beings. They’d located the Hammer of Tyrmaklees and were chasing me because I have in my possession the Anvil of Tyrmaklees.” He lifted the golden pendant from his chest. “Together, the Hammer and Anvil can be used to manufacture swords of tremendous sorcerous power. Swords capable of cutting open the fabric of reality and allowing in the hordes from the Demon Realms. Not just summoning a few demons into our world temporarily, to do someone’s bidding. But letting the whole lot of them swarm into it, to destroy it!”

Grud removed a pair of spectacles from a pocket in his apron, put them on and inspected the little anvil. “For an object capable of causing the end of the world, it looks a bit rubbish.”

“It’s currently in miniaturised form. Makes it easier to carry.”

“Rothgar Ravunus, former head of the local Sorcerers’ Guild, now runs the Red Raven Brewery. He served us with an eviction notice today. So I assumed this lot had been sent by him – ”

The youth’s voice grew excited. “But listen to me – all this blather about guilds and breweries and evictions isn’t important. Not compared to my mission. Tonight you proved yourself to be a sorcerer of immeasurable skill. You can be my companion. Together we can travel into the Western Wastes and find the Foundry of Shirmaton, the Ancient Blacksmith God. If we entrust the anvil to him… Why, no dark creature, no matter what its power, would dare to steal the anvil from a god – ”

But then the youth fell silent because he realised how intensely Grud was staring at him.

“Son,” said the landlord quietly, “this is the last time I’m going to tell you. It’s time for you to go home. We’re closed.”

Then he roared, “Get out of my pub!



THE END


2019 Rab Foster

Bio: Rab Foster has spent much of his life living in the Borders region of Scotland. He grew up on a hill-farm, but now works as an educational consultant. His fantasy stories have appeared in Aphelion, Legend and Sorcerous Signals. .

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