FIVE: A Traveler in Black
North of the Kratchnodians, at the Trolledyngjan mouth of the Middle Pass, stood the inn run by Frita Tolvarson. It had been in his family since the time of Jan Iron Hand. The main trade road from Tonderhofn and the Trolledyngjan interior passed nearby, spanned the mountains, formed a tenuous link with the south. For travelers it was either the first or last bit of comfort following or preceding a harrowing passage. There was no other hospice for days around.
Frita was an old man, and a kindly soul, with a child for almost every year of his marriage. He didn't demand much more of his customers than reasonable payment, moderate behavior, and news of the rest of the world.
There was a custom at the inn dating back centuries. Every guest was asked to contribute a story to the evening's entertainment.
Winding down from the high range, a path had been beaten in the previous night's snow. The first spring venturers were assaulting the pass from the south. The path made a meandering ribbon of shadow once it reached the drifted moor, its depths unplumbed by the light of a low-hanging, full Wolf Moon. A chill arctic wind moaned through the branches of a few skeletal trees. Those gnarled old oaks looked like squatting giants praising the sky with attenuated fingers and claws.
The wind had banked snow against the north wall of Frita's establishment. The place looked like a snowbound barrow from that direction. But on the south side a traveler could find a welcoming door.
One such was crossing the lonely moor, a shivering black silhouette against the moonlit Kratchnodians. He wore a darkgreat cloak wrapped tightly about him, its hood pulled far forward to protect his face. He stared down dully, eyes watery. His cheeks burned in the cold. He despaired of reaching the inn, though he saw and smelled the smoke ahead. His passage through the mountains had been terrible. He wasn't accustomed to wintery climes.
Frita looked up expectantly as a cold blast roared into the inn. He put on a smile of welcome.
"Hey!" a customer grumbled. "Close the goddamned door! We aren't frost giants."
The newcomer surveyed the common room: There were just three guests.
Frita's wife bade him quit gawking and offer the man something to drink. He nodded to his oldest daughter. Alowa slipped off her stool, quickly visited the kitchen for mulled wine. "No!" she told a customer as she passed him on her way to the newcomer. Frita chuckled. He knew a "yes" when he heard it.
The newcomer accepted the wine, went to crouch before the fire. "There'll be meat soon," Alowa told him. "Won't you let me take your cloak?" Her blonde hair danced alluringly as she shook it out of her face.
"No." He gave her a coin. She examined it, frowned, tossed it to her father. Frita studied it. It was strange. He seldom saw its like. It bore a crown instead of a bust, and intricate characters. But it was real silver.
Alowa again asked the stranger for his cloak.
"No." He moved to the table, leaned forward as if to sleep on his forearms.
There'll be trouble now, Frita thought. She won't rest till she unveils the mystery. He followed her to the kitchen. "Alowa, behave yourself. A man deserves his privacy."
"Could he be the one?"
"The one what?"
"The one the Watcher is waiting for?"
Frita shrugged. "I doubt it. Mark me, girl. Let him be. That's a hard man." He had caught a glimpse of the man's face as he had turned from the fire. Fortyish, weathered, thin, dark-eyed, dusky, with a cruel nose and crueler lines around his mouth. There was a metallic sound when he moved. The worn hilt of a sword protruded through the part in his cloak. "That's no merchant trying to be first to the prime furs."
Frita returned to the common room. It lay silent. Thehandful of customers were waiting for the newcomer to reveal something of himself and his business. Frita's curiosity grew. The man wouldn't push back his hood. Was his face so terrible?
Time passed, mostly in silence. The newcomer had dampened the mood that had prevailed earlier, when there had been singing, joking, and good-natured competition for Alowa's favors. The stranger ate in silence, hidden in his hood. Alowa, gradually, moved from mystification to hurt. Never had she encountered a man so oblivious to her charms.
Frita decided the time for tales had come. His guests had begun drinking to fill the time. The mood was growing sour. Something was needed to lighten it before drink led to unpleasantness. "Brigetta, get the children." Nodding, his wife rose from her needlework, stirred the younger children from their evening naps and the older from the kitchen. Frita frowned at the youngsters when they began playing with one of the traveler's dogs.
"Time for tales," he announced. There were just seven people at the table, including himself. Two of the others were his wife and Alowa. "A rule of the house. Not required. But he who tells the best pays no keep." His eyes lingered on the one they called the Watcher, a small, nervous, one-eyed rogue. He had arrived nearly a year ago, in company with a gentleman of means, who had behaved like a fugitive. The gentleman had left the Watcher and had hurried northward as if his doom pursued him. Yet nothing had ever come of it.
Frita didn't like the Watcher. He was a sour, evil, small-minded little man. His only redeeming feature was a fat purse. Alowa made him pay for what she gave everyone else freely, and hinted that his tastes were cruel.
One guest said, "I'm from Itaskia, where I was once a merchant sailor." And he told of grim sea battles with corsairs out of the Isles, with no quarter given nor taken. Frita listened with half an ear. The feud of Itaskia's shipping magnates with the Red Brotherhood was a fixture of modern history.
The second visitor began his tale, "I once joined an expedition to the Black Forest, and there I heard this tale." And he spun an amusing yarn about a toothless dragon who had terrible problems finding sufficiently delicate meals. The smaller children loved it.
Frita had heard it before. He hated to declare an old story the winner.
But, to his surprise, the Watcher volunteered a tale. He hadn't bothered for months.
He stood, the better to fix his audience's attention, and used his hands' freely while speaking. He had trouble moving his left arm. Frita had seen it bare. He had taken a deep wound in the past.
"Long ago and far away," the Watcher began, in the storyteller's fashion, "in a time when elves still walked the earth, there was a great elf-king. Mical-gilad was his name, and his passion, conquest. He was a mighty warrior, undefeated in battle or joust. He and his twelve paladins were champions of the world till the events whereof I speak."
Frita frowned, leaned back. A story new to him. A pity its teller had little feel for the art.
"One day a knight appeared at the gates of the elf-king's castle. His shield bore an unknown coat of arms. His horse was twice as big as life and black as coal. The gate guards refused him passage. He laughed at them. The gates collapsed."
Yes, Frita thought, it would make a tale in the mouth of a competent teller. The Watcher described the elf-king's encoun-ter with He Who Laughs, after the stranger had slain his twelve champions. He then fought the king himself, who overcame him by trickery, but couldn't kill him because of the unbreachable spells on his armor.
Frita thought he saw where it was going. He had heard so many tales that even the best had become predictable. It was a moral tale about the futility of trying to evade the inevitable.
The elf-king had his opponent thrown on a dung heap outside his castle, whereupon He Who Laughs promised another, more terrible meeting. And, sure enough, the next time the elf-king went a-conquering, he found the knight in black and gold riding with his enemies.
As he talked, the Watcher nervously played with a small gold coin. It was a tick Frita no longer noticed. But the newcomer seemed mesmerized by the constant tumble of the gold piece.
In the end, He Who Laughs ran the elf-king down and slew him.
The ex-sailor from Itaskia said, "I don't understand. Why was the king afraid of him if he wasn't afraid of anybody else?"
For the first time the newcomer uttered more than a monosyllable. "The knight is a metaphor, my friend. He Who Laughs is one of the names of the male avatar, the hunter aspect,of Death. She sets that part of herself to stalk those who would evade her. The elves were supposed to have been immortal. The point of the story was that the king had grown so arrogant in his immortality that he dared challenge the Dark Lady, the Inevitable. Which is the grossest form of stupidity. Yet even today men persist in the folly of believing they can escape the inevitable."
All eyes were on the newcomer now. Especially that of the Watcher. The remark about the inevitable seemed to have touched his secret fears.
"Well then," said the innkeeper. "Which wins? The pirate? The dragon? Or the lesson of the elf-king?"
Half a dozen little ones clamored for the dragon.
"Wait," said the newcomer. His tone enforced instant silence. "I would like a turn."
"By all means," Frita nodded, eager to please. This man had begun to frighten him. Yet he was surprised. He hadn't expected this dour, spooky stranger to contribute.
"This is a true story. The most interesting usually are. It began just a year ago, and hasn't yet ended.
"There was a man, of no great stature or means, completely unimportant in the usual ways, who had the misfortune to be a friend of several powerful men. Now, it seems the enemies of those men thought they could attack them through him.
"They waylaid him one day as he was riding through the countryside...."
From beneath his hood the newcomer peered at the Watcher steadily. The one-eyed man tumbled his coin in a virtual blur.
"Just south of Vorgreberg...." the stranger said, almost too softly for any but the one-eyed man's ears.
The Watcher surged up, a whimper in his throat as he dragged out a dagger. He hurled himself at the stranger.
One finger protruded from the newcomer's sleeve. He said one word.
Smoke exploded from the Watcher's chest. He flew backward, slammed against a wall. Women and children screamed. Men ducked under the table.
The stranger rose calmly, bundled himself tightly, and vanished into the frigid night.
Frita peeked from beneath the table. "He's gone now." He joined his surviving guests beside the body.
"He was a sorcerer," the sailor muttered.
"Was that the man he was watching for?" Alowa asked. Her excitement was pure thrill.
"I think so. Yes. I think so." Frita opened the Watcher's shirt.
"Who was he?" the sailor asked.
"This here fellow's version of He Who Laughs, I reckon, the way he went on."
"Look at this," said the other man. He had recovered the coin the dead man had dropped when going for his knife. "You don't see many of these. From Hammad al Nakir."
"Uhm," Frita grunted. The silver coin the stranger had given him had been of the same source, but of an earlier mintage.
Bared, the dead man's chest appeared virtually uninjured. The only mark was a small crown branded over his heart.
"Hey," said the ex-sailor. "I've seen that mark before. It's got , something to do with the refugees from Hammad al Nakir, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Frita replied. "We shared our meal with a celebrity. With a king."
"Really?" Alowa's eyes were large. "I touched him...."
The sailor shuddered. "I hope I never see him again. Not that one. If he's who I think you mean. He's accursed. Death and war follow him wherever he goes...."
"Yes," Frita agreed. "I wonder what evil brought him to Trolledyngja?"