Outside the Inn Fen stood, considering, listening to the susurrant voices within. A thin honeyed glow drifted off the opaque windows, blending with the failing light of evening. He had coin for a drink, but going in meant dealing with strangers, questions. And he looked like exactly what he was: a scoundrel with a scar and a big piece of steel on his hip. Just more witnesses. A breeze wafted from the south, pulling a hush from the tall grass and kicking up dust from the intersecting roads. Fen considered stealing one of the few horses left outside the inn, but they were work-a-day nags, sagging with age. A drink sounded good. Damnit. His mail and leather jingled and creaked as he walked away from the yard. Then he stopped and a smile curled the salt-and-pepper stubble of his cheeks.

If not for the candles he wouldn’t have seen the small platform built at the forest’s edge. Sweet incense burned in glass jars. Lighted by the candles’ flame he saw a loaf of coarse bread, a damned fish on a plate, a bowl of something that looked like honey. And three corked jugs. Fen picked up the largest, filled with clear spirit. He laughed through his nose, uncorked and drank. Sighing contentedly, he placed the burdensome bottle in his pack and carried on. The forest swallowed the road.

Evening drew down: a velvet, sequined veil, masking the pale daylight. Fen wondered about making camp, but another pull from the jug decided him that it was a fine evening for walking. The wine was sweet and sour and so strong that he could hardly believe his luck. A pleasurable lightness suffused his steps. A hazy nimbus began to creep around the blue and black trees. The wine, he thought, but the tang of cinders filled the deeply silent wood. And he smelled something besides the wood smoke: the juicy scent of meat, bubbling fat.

The road was wide here and, surely, a roadside camp would be near. Ah, there, the firelight; orange and winking, shining through the black, groping branches. He stopped and swayed on his feet. Wine on an empty stomach; he stowed the jug again, now lighter. If the camp was en masse, armed and guarded, he would have to duck off into the forest. Wine made him bold. Plenty of room to pass along the other side of the track.

If there weren’t many, or they weren’t prepared… well, the night was young.

But there was no camp around the bend. Further on, Fen realized the fire was much larger, and well off the road. He stood on the fringe, thought of every fairy-tale that spoke against following strange lights into the wild. Grinning, Fen cinched his pack tighter, gripped the pummel of the sword slung at his hip. Tonight there were worse things in the forest than sprites and will-o-wisps.

His march was halting, treacherous. His helm would have saved his face from the severe scouring of wicked low branches, but visibility was so scant already, and the helmet so hatefully heavy. Sticks and scrub grabbed and stuck in his tarnished mail; snagged his already torn and ragged coat. The fire grew closer, glimpsed through the silhouette of deciduous growth. The light was wrong and he realized why: it was too high and he saw no actual flame.

Then, finally, he stepped out from the forest’s grasping hands, into a small field of regular stones outlined in chill moonlight. Grave stones. And beyond, a church; a black bulk in the evening glade. The remains of a crucifix pointed, jagged and accusatory, to the sky. The fire light was visible through a great chasm where the roof had fallen in, and through a partially collapsed wall.

Suspicion prickled along Fen’s spine. He flexed his jaw, teeth set hard. Big fire, secreted within ruined walls. Well off the road. Set suitably for hard men in hiding. Be damned. They might have more drink, or they might cut him apart as soon as he stepped out of the shadows. His belly was warm and his head held a delicious, swimming indifference. But it was no reason to be reckless. Animal cunning. Yes, he had always been the lone wolf; the one that came out one step ahead. He breathed deeply the damp air and the senseless yammer cleared from his head. Fen moved through the humped, woven grass amid the headstones.

The door was long gone; frame aged and splintered. From the shadows Fen saw an empty vestibule, thick with dark, and beyond, a nave heaped with debris and ruin. The fire was built on the remains of the roof; the scrolled ends of pews stuck out at charred angles. Fen didn’t see anyone; his hand was tight to his sword-grip. There,  on the other side of the fire, a man was sat against the wall. Ragged, with prominent cheekbone, a long, curved nose surrounded by a grizzled mane festooned with forest debris. A chill tightened the fine hairs about Fen’s nape; it seemed the raggedy man was staring at him, though Fen was well in the dark. The firelight glimmered in the stranger’s eyes; a reflection that went glaring yellow for a bare moment. But then Fen’s sight was diverted to the meat cooking on a spit; his stomach groaned. Fen relaxed and the inch of exposed steel clicked home in its scabbard. A beggar, alone in a nighted and ruined church. A smile broadened Fen’s jaw as he stepped through the shadows and into the light.

The beggar remained still, watching Fen’s approach with an expression that suggested a smile without becoming one. No sudden movement; no dash for secreted weaponry. Fen maintained eye-contact as he moved through the piled detritus. Ten feet away from where the stranger sat, Fen pulled a stool from a nearby pile, placed it comfortably away from the blaze and sat. He continued to eye the old man.

“Finally, you have arrived,” the old man’s voice was sonorous, unfitting to his derelict appearance.

Fen raised his brows. “Expected me, did you?” He chuckled.

“You. Or someone very much like you,” the old man said. He gestured to the meat cooking and Fen observed the sallow, loose flesh of the man’s hand; each finger tipped with a filthy, cracked nail. After a moment – and a grumble from his empty belly – Fen got up and used a long dagger to trim a dripping strip. The stranger stood and helped himself too. He wore a mottled, patchy robe beneath a dented and rusty cuirass; the ragged hem obscured his feet which clacked against the stone like the soft strikes of a wooden mallet. Once seated (and he’d done it without groaning, wincing or using the wall for assistance) he slurped grease from the meat before tearing it apart with fingers and teeth.

Brad Emshwiller

#2489 in Fantasy
#548 in Dark fantasy
#606 in Short stories

Story about: folklore, speculative horror

Edited: 14.09.2019

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