Clovir: An Overture

Part III: The Black Kettle

This story is the third instalment in Clovir: An Overture and the preview story for the book. It is a fair bit of fun - I certainly loved writing it. If you do enjoy this story, make sure to get your copy of Clovir: An Overture when it drops on June 15, 2019!

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The Black Kettle

“Turn your speakers down
And listen to the silence down below
That’s the messenger
And that’s the only one that really knows”

I Believe by SOJA (feat. Nahko and Michael Franti)

“When the tough get going, get the fuck out.” Horace Jenkins punctuated his threat with a slap on the table, staring at the seated man across from him as he did so. “That will be two tin pieces for your supper and last night’s accommodations.”

The Innkeeper extended an open palm to his guest. He sedately watched the rat-like creature before him make a show of patting his four pockets on his stained and patched-thrice-over duster, feigning a newly-discovered inability to pay. Horace thought to himself for the fifth time that week that if business was so bad that he was renting rooms to Highwaymen… well, he was in deep.

“Apologies, sirrah, I ain’t a piece on me. Guess we’ll ‘ave ta call it square and I’ll see ya when me travels brings me back to ya. I’ll pay ya then.”

“Edward Gump,” shrieked Giselda Jenkins from across the bar, “you’ll pay me ‘usband or we’ll be goin’ to Magistrate Johnson! What’d yer mother think o’ dis, skippin’ out on yer debts ta dose what loves ya? Turn ‘er o’er in ‘er grave, I’ll warrant.”

“I would sooner get piss from a rock than my due out of this one, Giselda,” Horace muttered, straightening and uttering a defeated sigh.

“Blood from a stone,” said Edward under his breath, sitting back in his chair and giggling.

“What was that?”

“Nothin’, sirrah,” said the youngish man, standing from the table. “Now, if ye’ll excuse me, me good man.”

Edward had forgotten himself. It was not the first time, and it would not be the last, but it was a slip of the tongue that he would always remember with a shudder. Horace was on him before he could draw the hunting knife he kept in the pocket closest his arse. The Innkeeper cracked the young man in the jaw with a well-placed hook and laid upon him a score of kicks after he fell to the ground, with Giselda screeching at her husband to let up after the first terrible blow.

Horace was like a stone unmoved by most things, including insults. You could chuckle about his paunch, his imposing forehead, even a supposed inability to raise his member absent a poultice from the village midwife. He would laugh right along with you, doing you one up on whatever joke you made about his shortcomings. You could even brazenly call him ‘sirrah,’ diminutive as the term was, without fear of retribution. There was a bright line that signaled the end of his patience, however, one that was well known throughout Kalingshire as one never to be crossed. Only a fool would make fun of Horace Jenkins’ mixed-up language.

It was a quirk Horace picked up in his youth, some inability to process the old proverbs into proper order in his brain. He frequently befuddled the nuggets of metaphorical wisdom or simply replaced words with similar sounding ones. A scholar from the University with an emphasis on His Majesty’s Thrain might have told Horace that he was suffering from a propensity for malapropisms and eggcorns, but such learned men were few and far between in the hamlet of Kalingshire. Regardless of what you called it, Horace’s speech was at-times funny.

When he was a young child, a diminutive stature meant Horace was forced by circumstance to simply receive the insults and bullying without question. After a summer growth spurt at age twelve saw him return from the break to the schoolhouse six inches taller, he nearly killed Abraham Spooney, an unfortunate young tough who had taken great joy in tormenting the boy every chance he got. On the dissonant backdrop of the verdant Kalingshire countryside, this was the first and most brutal beating ever dished out by the recently gargantuan child. When the bully recovered (mostly) from the injuries, Spooney never said another unkind word to Horace. Neither did the rest of his peers. Thankfully, due to good country breeding and disposition, Horace never abused his newfound power. Aside from futile attempts to correct his speech that saw him gain an uncommon (in Kalingshire) mastery of the King’s Thrain, Horace simply went on being his kind and obliging self – unless, of course, you brought up his peculiar patterns of speaking.

“Better never be later than with my two pieces of tin, sirrah,” Horace said through gritted teeth, delivering one final kick to the unmoving Highwayman’s crotch.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Welcome to the Black Kettle, sir,” Horace said, sleepily opening the door to the inn with candlestick in hand. “We are open no matter the hour, as I am sure you can appreciate.”

A cloaked figure spilled through the threshold and past the enormous innkeeper, landing face first with a thud on the floor. Red fluid began to seep past the edge of the man’s cloak, a sight barely caught by the light of Horace’s candle.

“Christ-man presage us!” a bug-eyed Horace screamed, unconcerned about the noise as there was not another soul staying at the Black Kettle that night. “Giselda, get out here!”

Horace stooped and grabbed the man’s shoulder. He flipped him over and was greeted by a horror the like of which he had never seen before. The skin of the man’s face was open in bloody flaps and one eyeball had nearly been rent from its socket. The rest of his body was in what one might euphemistically call ‘hard shape’ as well, torn to pieces as if the man had been savaged by an enormous animal. Not wanting to touch the gore, Horace peered at the injured fellow by candlelight and noticed that there was a steady up and down to his chest and he was making a faint gurgling sound. Horace shouted a few times and clapped his hands in the air. When Giselda finally made her way to the front entrance area of the inn, still adjusting her hastily applied dress and grumbling all the while, she shrieked and fainted when she laid eyes on the Black Kettle’s newest ‘guest.’ Horace dragged his wife to the fauteuil pushed against a wall near the front desk, grunted as he hefted her somewhat corpulent body onto the decaying leather, and then returned to his injured visitor.

“No helping it,” Horace said feebly to the unconscious man, “I am going to have to fetch the Chirurgeon. Let us get you in by the fire.”

It being close to midnight, the earlier blaze of the hearth necessitated by the rapidly cooling Novembus Month had died down to naught but a handful of orange embers surrounded in a white sooty ash. With practiced fingers, Horace retrieved some kindling from the little bin next to the fireplace, arranged them on top of the embers, blew a few times, and then added a couple of logs after the kindling was aflame.

Horace again inspected the man, this time with the aid of the light cast by the roaring fire. He was the same: shredded and oozing blood, but still nonetheless alive. In this light, he could see that he was wearing a leather duster. It was the style of the men-folk young and old in Ecta Province.

Rather than let his wife awaken alone to the horror on the rug just a handful of feet from the fauteuil, Horace went to the imposing front desk, fished a small brown leather satchel from one of the drawers on the other side of the oaken monstrosity, jiggled open the hasp of the bag, and pulled out a small phial filled with an off-white powder. He uncorked it, brought it over to his wife, and waved it under her nostrils. She sat up with a start. Horace said a few calming words to Giselda before moving on to the substantive stuff.

“Gizzy, my girl,” said Horace, “I need you to watch that gentleman.” He indicated the ravaged man still lying on his back before fetching the gnarled and thick length of hard wood behind the front desk he called his ‘stick,’ a weapon reserved for a violent emergency that had not before arrived. “It looks like a wolf or a bear got him. I am going to wake Physiker Montcalm.”

“Ya knows I ‘ates dat nickname, ‘orace, darlin’,” Giselda said absently before looking over at the bloody figure and grimacing. “Christ-man, what ‘appened to dat poor bugger?”

“Your mind is as good as a guess, Gizz- Giselda, my sweet. I suppose we’ll find out, if he lives through it.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

To put it mildly, the path from The Black Kettle to the homestead of Physiker Esmer Montcalm was less than ideally lit. It was not without reason: the economic situation in Kalingshire was grim, and the Mayor did not have enough coppers in the town coffers to pay even Wally and Hubert Doran, the self-starting teenagers who had come to act as lamplighters. They became employed after the professionals in the area moved back to Isha because of the meagre and depleting compensation on offer for their labours. Hard decisions were made. The Doran boys were not such go-getters that they would sweat their way up the ladder countless times an evening over the course of three hours without pay. As it was, the lamps sat black and cold night after night as the fortunes of the Kalingshire community dwindled into abject poverty, one that threatened to eventually see the southern hamlet abandoned. Were it not for the enormous full yellow moon smiling down on Horace as his donkey, Dumbtit, clonked her way across the hard-packed red dirt interspersed with worn and chipped cobbles that was the best road in town, Horace Jenkins would have undoubtedly become slowed down in the pitch of the night.

Such a delay might have saved him his Fate.

Instead, when Horace made it to the local Chirurgeon’s home, he dismounted and glanced around at the thick mixture of lush green conifers and skeletally bare deciduous trees that surrounded the house. He could not place what bothered him about his environment at the time. The Innkeeper knew that something was wrong, but identifying that which made his skin crawl was a futile effort. He clutched his oaken stick tight against his breast. After an anti-climactic moment, he sighed and went to the large door, picked up the iron ring of the knocker, and slammed it down three times in quick succession. Then he hollered for the Physiker, banged the knocker again, and made such a racket that eventually a blonde-haired and dark-eyed young woman wearing a rumpled white robe pulled open her door with a strange blend of concern and a scowl on her face.

Had Horace not been so quick to roust his quarry, he might have finally noticed what bothered him about the area in front of the Chirurgeon’s house: there was not a single peep from any of the wildlife that usually noisily went about their business, even that late in the year. No birds, no squirrels, no insects. It was as if the nature had abandoned the place.

“What is it, Horace?” said Physiker Montcalm, making no attempt to disguise her irritation as she looked out at him. She bore the accent of the Ishan merchant class – nearly noble, but not quite. Just like her station as a Physiker, Chirurgeon or no. “It’s midnight, for the love of the Christ-man – this better be life or death.” She paused to examine the stick brandished in the man’s hand. “Not another twenty-something victim of our ‘good-natured Innkeeper?’”

“I am sorry about the Gump boy, Esmer, I truly am,” Horace said, honest contrition evident on the Innkeeper’s pudgy and moon-lit face. “But, you had better come with me back to the Kettle – there is a fellow in rough shape there. Cut up, bleeding all over the Gods-damned place.” He peered at the Physiker’s skeptical gaze for a moment before adding: “I did not do it to him – I swear!”

“Let me get dressed,” the Chirurgeon said, slamming the door in the Innkeeper’s face and leaving him to stand uselessly in the moonlight. He stared at the ornate lily-shaped knocker for a moment, willing the Physiker to hurry. The last conscious memory Horace had of that night was a blaze of pain across his back and a sensation of falling before his head struck the oak of the door and the lights in his mind went out.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“I have done the best I can, Giselda,” said Physiker Montcalm, “all we can do now is wait.”

“Will ‘e ever look da same ag’in?”

“I won’t lie to you,” the Chirurgeon said quietly to the frantic Innkeeper. “The wounds will heal, but there will likely be some scarring, even with the stitches. We won’t get an idea of how bad until the linen wraps come off for the fifth or sixth time.

A wail exploded from Giselda. A waking Horace heard it through the linen that was wrapped around his head, cloth that bathed him in darkness and left only room for his nostrils and mouth to fulfill their necessary functions. He would have paid more attention to the woman if his entire body did not feel like it was completely on fire. Awareness of the pain grew and grew until the dam broke and he began screaming in concert with his wife.

“Ah, Christ-man preserve us,” Physiker Montcalm said, trying vainly to push the rotund man back into his bed. “Horace – it’s Esmer! You’ve been injured! I am going to give you some Blessing of Morpheus now!”

The Chirurgeon grasped one of the many phials she had arranged on the night table next to the bed. Unstoppering it, she tried to pour a portion of the viscous white fluid carefully into a glass, but the jostling of her patient made it impossible to do so with any degree of precision. Fed up with Horace, she simply dumped a large quantity into the drinking vessel and poured some of the inn’s ruby brew, Clever Charles, in on top of it, swirled, then put it up to his lips. He stopped screaming for a moment so that he could drink. Finished, he resumed his cacophonous utterings for a few more minutes, until the Blessing of Morpheus took effect and the man began to doze.

Giselda, who had stood up from her chair after her husband began thrashing about, was watching intently throughout the proceedings with a mixture of concern and horror, rubbing the bandage on her forearm all the while. She began to feel light-headed, then collapsed over onto the table where the mess of crimson-stained (and illegally imported) Liserian rubber tubing and steel bloodletting needles had been piled.

“Christ-man, Giselda,” cried Physiker Montcalm, “do I have to give you some of the Gods-damned Blessing, too? You’re lucky you never stuck yourself! I told you to stay seated!”

With some difficulty, given the Inkeeper’s bulk, the slight Chirurgeon helped the distraught woman back to her feet and into her chair. Sweating, Physiker Montcalm picked up the transfusion equipment and dunked it into the wooden tub filled with hot water, along with the sewing needles and bloody rags that she had used during the chirurgery.

“Now, Giselda,” said Physiker Montcalm, “you will sleep tonight and recover from the transfusion. Tomorrow, you’re going to need to get someone in to remove that man’s corpse from beside your hearth. If you leave it for any length of time the rats and mice are going to smell it and get into the inn. And it will make you sick – believe you me, you do not want to have the Magistrate come down with a Pestilential to sanitize the place. If you have a few coppers to throw their way, I dare say the Doran boys will take it out to the Mortiker’s hut for burning on Hilda’s pyre.”

For the second time that night, Giselda Jenkins fainted.

“Gods-fucking-damn you, Horace Jenkins,” said the exasperated Chirurgeon. “Gods-damn you, Gods-damn that fucking dead vagrant, Gods-damn whatever animal attacked you two, and Gods-damn your fragile wife.”

The foul-mouthed Physiker took another look at the enormous couple snoring loudly next to one another – him in the bed and her in the brown upholstered chair next to it – went to the door, grabbed the storm lantern she had brought with her from her house, and set off to find the Doran brothers herself. As enraged as she was, Esmer did not wish to see a Pestilential come to Kalingshire.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Christ-man, Gizzy, the – do not tug so hard on the thing! There. That is better. Ah. Ah! Ouch! Gods-damn it, woman!”

“If ye’d just shut yer ‘ole, ‘orace, it’d be done by now. I’d pull da whole works off in one go but Esmer told me ta be gentle wit’ ya.”

Horace screamed a few more times before the bandage came off. Giselda crumpled up the off-white cloth, stained yellow and orange with the pus still dribbling from the scabs, and tossed it into the open mouth of the hearth. The flames inside leapt up to devour the dressing. Hanging from an iron rod above, a black kettle, an heirloom from Giselda’s mother that was the namesake of the inn, began to whistle as a great surge of white steam escaped through its spout. Giselda then grabbed a pair of tongs from the basket next to the hearth, used them to grasp the kettle’s handle, and pulled it along the rod, deftly lifting it out of its cradle as it neared the end. She then placed it on the stone before the fire, put the tongs away, took hold of the handle with a bit of stained woolen cloth, and poured the hot water into a little pot stuffed with dried plant material.

“Ye don’t look all dat bad, ‘orace,” Giselda said, placing the teapot on a blue china plate. It rested on a small table between the two large matching green upholstered chairs upon which the pair had been stationed during Horace’s convalescence. “You’ll be as good as new before ye knows it.”

Horace did not respond. He simply gestured to his wife with a hand outstretched, making a beckoning motion to the woman. Sighing, Giselda reached down next to her, produced a small hand mirror made of polished metal set into dark brown wood, and handed it to her husband.

The gouges, which had been an inch or more deep when the attack occurred not three days ago, had closed up at a rate that was several orders of magnitude quicker than even the best estimates Physiker Montcalm had given the man. His face, fleshy as it was, had regained some of the rugged handsomeness that had accompanied the man past his fifty-fifth summer. The eyes, though – the Chirurgeon did not have an answer for Horace as to why a spiderweb of black tissue, starting at the pupil and moving outward, had begun to invade the cold ocean blue of his eyes.

“Strange thing, that,” Horace said. “In the eyes, too. It better not be Cyclopean Fever, that’s all I’ve got to say about it.”

“Now ‘orace, don’t start wit’ dat ag’in. Esmeralda told ya dat it wasn’t da Fever, and she was in Isha a couple of years ago when da plague was at its worst. She’d know.”

Horace placed the mirror on the table between them, picked up the cup of tea his wife had poured for him, and sipped. He would not need to apply another bandage: that was the only good news to come of it. Much quicker healing period than what Montcalm had estimated, indeed.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Welcome to the Black Kettle, sir,” said Horace, throwing open the door to the inn, careful to step back to allow his visitor entry. The rain was coming down hard, and there would no doubt be mud to clean up for Giselda. “We are open no matter the hour-”

A figure wearing a full-bodied red robe, covered in an enormous orange paisley cloak with the hood pulled down over their face, entered the inn, tapped their muddy boots perfunctorily on the woolen mat just inside the portal, and pulled back the ornate covering to reveal a head full of black hair, ivory skin, and eyes as green as a forest in the full bloom of summer. Her features were paradoxically both sharp and rounded by the shape of her face. She smiled curtly at the innkeeper and hooked a thumb around the black rope cinched about her waist.

“Ah, mistress, you are no sir,” said Horace, somewhat bewildered by the sight. “My apologies. But please, come in, let me take –“

The habitual offer to take a visitor’s rain-soaked covering caught in Horace’s throat. He noticed in the candlelight that there was not a bit of darkness suggestive of moisture on any part of the woman – cloak nor robe. She was as dry as a bone.

“I will keep the cloak,” said the woman, “Mister…”

“Uh,” said Horace, his loss for words continuing apace until finally a clanging in the kitchen behind him drew him out of his reverie. “Jenkins. Horace Jenkins. As I said, welcome to the Black Kettle. Perhaps you are hungry? We have rabbit stew, made with a brace freshly snared this afternoon. And some of Farmer Whateley’s Clever Charles. I have heard tell of the Cistern Ale up in Isha, the type of drink that can spellbind a man till his whole evening is naught but a blur. Well, Whateley’s draught is something of another pod to pea in – I mean, clothed in the same cut – I mean, something very similar indeed, mistress.” The man had fully reddened by the time he finished his pitch.

“Yes,” said the woman, the full propriety of her noble accent quite out of place to the ears of a man accustomed to the hodge-podge of country patois that was common in Kalingshire and its vicinity. “I will have a bowl, Mister Jenkins. And a mug. Perhaps I might rent a room as well? I shall be here for at least two weeks, perhaps more.” She tapped a heretofore unseen leather bag dangling from the rope of her belt which clinked at her efforts.

Consciously making an effort not to jump out of his skin with excitement at the prospect of money finally flowing into the inn, Horace grabbed the woman by the crook of her elbow and took her to the dining room. She smiled patiently at the man and allowed herself to be led.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“My name is Kathryn,” said the black-haired woman, gazing unblinkingly and speaking evenly at Giselda. “I am here on business. Some… research, as it were. For the University. I am something of a scholar of the natural world. And Kalingshire – it is very much of the natural world.” Kathryn placed her spoon in the wooden bowl of steaming stew, blew on it, and put it to her lips.

“And what, pray tell,” replied Giselda, removing her stained apron and placing two fists on prodigious hips clothed in a worn and faded cornflower blue cotton dress, “are ye studyin’, mistress?”

“As I said, you can call me Kathryn. I am studying the wildlife of the region. The nocturnal kind. I will be out most evenings, attending to my duties.” Kathryn took a long draught from her pewter mug. As she drank, she noted that the bottom was made of stained glass that depicted a green frog splayed out on a blue field. “Indeed great ale, Mister Jenkins. And a beautiful piece of work,” she added, licking her lips and gesturing to her discovery.

“The Swimming Frog is the Kalingshire Town Standard, Kathryn,” said Horace, looking more pleased than he had been for months, at least according to Giselda’s estimation. “Pewterwork is my sister’s craft, and she has taken to staining glass as well. We are surrounded by the forest – frogs like that will likely be croaking out their symphony while you do your work.” Horace paused, ignoring the fiery look his wife was directing at him. “Perhaps they are what you are here to study?”

Kathryn laughed. “No, no, nothing so… non-violent. I am here to study the carnivores. Hairy beasts, the ones with claws: wolves, foxes, bears –“

“Oh,” said Horace, pulling himself up in his chair, “perhaps you might be able to help us find that which-“

“‘orace!” said Giselda in a tone he knew better than to ignore, “I need some ‘elp wit’ da pie in the kitchen. P’r’aps ye could join me? Immediately?”

Horace looked up at his wife, then back at his guest. There was a faint smile tracing Kathryn’s lips, but she did not react when Horace spread his palms as if to show her that there was nothing that he could do, stood from his chair, and followed his wife out into the kitchen.

“What are ya doin’?” said Giselda in a hoarse whisper. “Ready ta share all yer secrets wit’ a stranger like dat? Physiker Montcalm told ya dat the speed of yer recovery was unnatural, dat da disappearance of yer scars is completely un’eard of, dat da renewed vigor with which ya find yourself able ta do a day’s work wit’ da axe is simply bizarre.” The Innkeeper paused to see if her words were having an effect on her husband. Unsatisfied, she continued. “Gods-damn it, ‘orace, it don’t take a University-type ta tell dat somethin’ very strange is goin’ on wit’ ya. And ye must just t’ink dat it’s coincidence dat dis woman – dis Kathryn, if dat’s even ‘er real name – comes sniffin’ around not two weeks after it ‘appens, claimin’ ta be ‘ere ta do ‘er ‘studies.’ On ‘airy clawed t’ings, no less.” She stopped once more to survey her husband’s reaction. There was none. “Christ-man, ‘orace, is ya touched or wha’?”

Horace took a moment to consider his wife’s words, then told her she was just being overcautious.

“Ye is bleedin’ touched, ‘orace. Dis animal attack – it’s wrecked yer fuckin’ mind. Please, fer the love of yer long-sufferin’ wife, don’t tell dat woman about it.”

Horace looked at his wife, grunted his assent, then started to leave the kitchen.

“Wait ‘orace, let me get ya da Gods-damned pie ta bring ta ‘er.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Any luck last night? Any new insights to take back to the University with you?”

“None at all. Well, perhaps that the Kalingshire climate is significantly warmer during the Yule Month than in Isha. Other than that…”

Kathryn shrugged at her host, who was in the green upholstered chair next to her. She sipped on her cider, hot and freshly mulled by the hostess, who was still clearing up the mess from supper in the dining room. The hearth was lighted out of spite for the absent midday sun, which could not penetrate the thick layer of black cloud that had settled on the environs. Freezing rain sputtered down onto the Black Kettle, rattling the aged shingles as it landed.

“It must be colder than the tit of a witch up your way,” replied Horace, surveying the frigid precipitation through a grimy window.

“Or a warlock’s cock,” Kathryn said with a laugh. “You do not get many visitors, I have noticed,” she added, changing the subject.

“Not since the iron mines were closed down and moved to the Black Pits at the foothills of the Crooked Spears. Now we see just too many Highwaymen and the occasional Tax Collector, both seeking to bleed us dry. Every once in a while, though, we get a rare Scholar from the University,” Horace added with a wink.

“Sounds bleak. At least, for a man in your business.”

Horace simply nodded, eyes ahead, preferring the dancing orange flames to the green-eyed woman’s unnerving stare.

“Well,” said Kathryn, “perhaps I can help you to change your outlook. Would you be interested in accompanying me tonight? I will not be doing too much of interest, simply watching the forest from the perch in the tree on the far side of Wilkes Field. Still, for a man with naught to do, I am sure it would be better than the alternative. I could use the company. And it will be my last night here, if my calculations are correct.”

There was nothing of the coquette in Kathryn’s tone nor body language. In his younger days, Horace was always on the lookout for such attributes in a woman, before the love he felt for his wife had cured him of his wandering eye. Well, mostly cured.

“Gizzy won’t like it,” said Horace finally, rubbing his chin. He could no longer feel even the faintest trace of the deep gouge that had been there just days before. “But, perhaps just this once. You are right: I am fucking bored.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

They set out just before gloaming, much to the protestations of Giselda. In front of Kathryn, to Horace’s dismay, she admonished her husband for shirking his duties to the inn. In private, she told him that he was likely to get attacked if he were out after dark again. This time he might not survive, like the poor wretch whom the Doran brothers were forced to bury while Horace was clinging to the barest threads of life. Tears flowed from his wife’s eyes as she sobbed out her plea.

Horace was not to be dissuaded. The man was headstrong, to be sure. But the last few weeks had seen him go from a world-weary innkeeper who found any excuse he could to give in to despair to a log-splitting, building-repairing creature of vigour who seemed unable to think of anything but the next laborious task that his wife and partner set before him. She had run out of maintenance items for him to complete a few days before and the man spent his now-free time drumming his fingers on a cheek that by all rights should have been disfigured. Or pestering his wife with questions about fermentation and cooking and all of the duties that had been taken up by Giselda when they opened the Black Kettle three decades before. Plus, for some reason that he could not explain, he felt positively compelled to join Kathryn that evening.

Kathryn had watched it all occur with her little curve of a half-smile.

Horace pulled the thick black wool of his duster close against his skin. Hands on his head, he adjusted an identically-shaded woolen skullcap that Giselda had knit for him last year, willing it to give his ears better coverage. Mercifully, the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared. It had warmed slightly. A sliver of sun still shone when they had set off minutes ago, crossed Wilkes Field, and found the ladder.

The woman climbing up the tree before him was dressed in her red robe, enveloped by the unbelievably intricate orange paisley of the cloak which stretched down to her heels. Horace stared at the patterns as he ascended, lost in the beauty. It was almost certainly put together by a master of loomcraft. In Horace’s fantasy, the creator was likely some wizened foreigner hailing from unknown Kashya or hated Liseria.

“That is quite the cloak,” he said when the pair found their seats on the tree stand, a great platform around which was wrapped a severely decayed wooden railing. Horace knew it to be an abandoned hunting blind used frequently by his father during the man’s youth.

“Thank you,” replied Kathryn, “I wove it myself.”

Not for the first time during that span of days in which she was his guest, Horace gazed upon Kathryn with wonder.

“What do you recall of that night, Horace?” Kathryn asked, meeting the man’s eyes with an inscrutable expression on her face.

“Pardon me?”

“The night you were attacked.”

“What? How did you-“

“Physiker Montcalm is an associate of my-” Kathryn said, breaking for a moment before resuming speaking. “She is the reason I came to Kalingshire so quickly. She had been asked to be on the lookout for attacks like the one that you suffered and report them to me and my… associates. They are of a different sort, these beasts. So, what do you recall?”

“N-nothin’,” replied Horace, his face contorted with confusion. “Nothin’ at all, Kathryn. I was struck from behind and fell over.” His expression hardened. “Who are you?”

Kathryn said nothing. She simply looked out over the valley into which the hamlet of Kalinshire had been carved. It was a great vista of brown and green forest interspersed with squat shacks peaked by smoking chimneys, rolling fields of grass that were yellowing with the advancing cold, an enormous mining pit, and a conglomeration of buildings, including the Black Kettle, that formed the town square. She could barely make any details out in the descending gloom.

When the last snatch of sunlight dropped below the horizon, the woman turned, muttered a few words in an alien language, and Horace felt his arms drawn forward and placed against the railing of the blind, as if his wrists were gripped in a razor-sharp vice. The same sensation tightened on his legs. The worst part was the cutting sensation around his neck as he was forced to look upon the woman. He found that his attempts to cry out his confusion were hindered by a mouth that would not move.

Kathryn muttered a few more words, put her hands together, and drew them apart. To the innkeeper’s utter shock, an orb of bluer than blue flame emerged from the ether and hovered just above her palm. She seemed to simply place the ball in place in the air next to the innkeeper’s face, where it took to floating on its own. The utter cold that radiated from the pulsating mass froze the mucous in Horace’s nose.

“We do not have much time,” Kathryn said, her eyes scanning his face before locking upon his own. “Your irises are completely black now, did you know that? Marius did tell me that this would occur, but I simply cannot believe how utterly the magic has infiltrated you.”

Kathryn pulled a tiny leather-wrapped tome from within the folds of her robe. A golden wolf howling at a red moon had been painted onto the cover. She opened it and began flipping the pages, speaking as she searched.

“You must know that we cannot allow this spell – this curse – to continue to propagate the way that it has. You will degenerate beyond repair once the night is over, unless we-“

An inhuman scream pierced the night somewhere in the woods to Kathryn’s left. She looked down, noticing as she did the creeping yellow face of the moon breaking the horizon on the other side of the valley.

On the planks of the blind next to her, Horace had lost consciousness. Black hair was sprouting from the backs of his hands. The man’s beard, once a fading grey-brown, was quickly being replaced with two tones: coal black like the fur upon his hands and a bone white that alternated in three great stripes. Horace then made a low growling noise that turned Kathryn’s blood ice cold.

“You shall feel fear.” The words of Kathryn’s Master echoed in her mind as she continued to flip through her book. Had she not turned down the corner of the page so that she would be able to find the words of the spell easily?

“It will try to crush you.” The sheafs of bound paper jumbled together, a microcosm of the disorder that appeared as if from nowhere within her previously calm mind. Heraclytan words and grammar exploded into a shower of linguistic nonsense that seemed to rain down and suffocate her ability to think. A stabbing anxiety thrust deep into her chest.

What if this confusion won? What if she could not complete her spell?

“This fear is an illusion, a test laid before you, one that requires that you walk the razor’s edge.”

Kathryn dropped the book, her fingers suddenly freezing. To her horror, she realized that it was the frostfire orb. The cold of her spells had never affected her before. The Mage tried to make her hands work, but they were gnarled into unfeeling bits of meat that banged uselessly at the spine of the book. Kathryn glanced over to see that Horace’s own hands had transformed, with vicious black claws that extended several inches past the end of the black furry paws. His eyes were mercifully still closed.

Kathryn felt panic radiate out from the center of her torso, into each and every limb of her body.

“Leonard Shim,” her Master had said in Kathryn’s memory, spitting on the red stone floor of his study, “the Red Mage who devised this curse, was an adept of Kronos, the Lord of Chaos. Kronos deals in insanity. To take on one of his creatures head-on means that you will have to have unwavering faith in the face of grave doubt.”

A deafening roar exploded from Horace’s mouth as Kathryn felt her Domination spell slip just a touch, enough to let him move his head and mouth. A head which was no longer a man’s head at all. It was striped with black and white, a pointed muzzle ending in a black nose and fangs that extended down from its upper mouth past its chin. It tried to turn its head towards the flustered Mage who had lost all of the composure she had carried with her since her induction into the Red Tradition. Would the rotting wood of the blind hold?

“You might understandably assume that the wolf is the worse specimen of the two types of lycanthropes that harry our fair Kingdom, but nothing could be further from the truth. A were-badger is the vilest heirloom left to us by that crazed shite of a Servant of Kronos.”

Kathryn felt a familiar sensation in her head as she looked on in horror at the snarling man-sized badger before her. It was one that she noticed quite a bit in the early days of her training at the Red Keep. It was the feeling of concentration on her spell about to snap.

“This is your final test, Kathryn,” her Master had said, “the one that will see you complete your Apprenticeship. You can do it, I know you can. There is but one thing that will save you, in spite of what your conscience might say. I know you know what it is. I know it is the reason you are here at the Keep and not still scrabbling for life in the Purple Run. For it is the source of my magic as well. Dig deep into your heart, pull it all out. Let the rage consume you and you shall see the end of your labours, safe and unharmed.”

Focusing on the familiar sensation bubbling up from the core or her being, Kathryn did as her Master had commanded.

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“Christ-man, ‘orace!” said Giselda, throwing open the shutters of the living room to allow the bright sunshine to spill over the snoring man. He was lying down on the couch, which had been pulled up close to the hearth. The embers within had long since died. “It’s t’ree in da afternoon, ye’ve slept more’n long enough!”

Horace blinked his eyes open, closed them again at the intensity of the afternoon sun, then turned to face his wife, eyes still closed.

“Christ-man yourself, woman, my head feels like it is about to split wide open!”

“No doubt,” said Giselda, her fists resting in their familiar crook on the woman’s hips. “No doubt, indeed. Yer friend, dat Kathryn, she dropped in dis morning, to tell me that she couldn’t get ya moved off yer fadder’s ‘untin’ blind. Passed out stone drunk is what the Doran boys telt me when dey dropped ye back ‘ere fer a tin coin apiece. Drinking Gods-damned pot liquor wit’ a woman like dat – what da fuck’s gotten into ya? Ye’re both lucky she paid ten times what she owed and den some – I’d have da both of ya skint fer whatever da fuck’s gone on while yer wife lay worried in ‘er bed!”

“Gizzy, my sweet, ya know I would never-“

“Christ-man, ‘orace, I knows ye’d never touch ‘er, but dat’s only because she wouldn’t ‘ave a big oaf like ye. I was aware o’ da type o’ man I was marryin’ when we tied da knot – a sport shagger, t’rough and t’rough.” Giselda smiled. “I’d do it ag’in in an ‘eartbeat. But don’t ya ever scare me like that again!”

Like what? Horace wondered to himself. The last memory in his head was becoming mesmerized by the orange paisley of the strange woman’s cloak as he ascended the ladder behind her.

“C’mere, lemme look at ya,” said Giselda, crossing to her husband and cradling his head in her hands. “Dere’s dem big blues I remember. When yer eyes started ta go black, and ya started actin’ all strange-like… I wasn’t sure if I’d ever ‘ave back me old ‘orace ag’in. Kat’ryn said dat she recognized da sickness takin’ root in da blind last night, dat it was somethin’ carried by the wildlife ‘round ‘ere. Somethin’ dat woulda seen ya driv’ mad. ‘Rabish,’ or somethin’ like dat, I t’ink she called it. She said she put da cure in yer drink.” Giselda let go and shook her head. “Lyin’ ‘ound. I’d ‘ave chased da ‘ussey off if she weren’t wit’ da Physiker when she showed up dis mornin’. Montcalm telt me what she said was true, dat dere were a sickness and dat Kat’ryn was just da Scholar we needed, and just in time, ta boot.”

“Dis is too bizarre and I’m too old ta question it,” Giselda added, “but I’ll be glad ta see the end o’ ‘er.”

“You mean she has not gone yet?” asked a thoroughly confused Horace.

“No, not yet. She’s leavin’ tomorrow, she said. I told ‘er I’d cook ‘er a nice dinner tonight as t’anks fer ‘er ‘elp.” Giselda shook her head once more. “Oh, me bleedin’ nerves.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“Are you sure I cannot give you anything else for your ride, Kathryn? Giselda makes a powerful strawberry preserve – goes very nicely on camp toast made with bread from one of those loaves.”

“No, thank you, Horace,” replied Kathryn from her seat atop her alabaster mare. “Although I do appreciate the offer. I want to thank you yet again for your hospitality. This might have been a fairly useless trip from a research perspective, but to see the rabies cure work on yet another poor victim of an animal attack like you – well, I might yet take up the white robe of the Physiker.”

“Uh, great,” said Horace, feeling discomfited as the topic of his sickness was broached once more. The youth-like vigour of the past few weeks had dissipated and now, like his wife, the Innkeeper simply wished for a return to some measure of peace. “Thank you, Kathryn. May your travels find you home safe and sound.”

Horace watched as the strangely-cloaked woman turned her horse, clicked her tongue and banged the reins. She proceeded down the snow-covered dirt of the road, past the Town Hall, and disappeared into the mouth of the white-wreathed forest.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

“I saw ye associatin’ wit’ Edward Gump at da Yule Festival, so it’ll be two tin pieces – in advance, fer a night’s stay and three meals.”

“Come on now, Gizz-“ the words caught in Horace’s throat, who stood watching the exchange between his wife and the young man at the front desk. “Nevermind, you go ahead.”

“Look at ya, bendin’ to da will of a woman,” said the Highwayman, wheeling on the older man. “What’s da matter, ‘orace, dat wolf what got ya slice yer nuts off?” The youth, not eliciting any laughter at what he thought to be a very funny joke, decided to switch gears. Knowing the prodigiously large woman behind the desk to be implacable, he decided to put his Faith in the man who had begun to intercede on his behalf. “Listen, ye knows me. It’s Terry Goodall, da lad what ran ‘round wit’ ‘enry when ‘e was a lad. Surely ye knows dat I’ll pay ya. Ye makes me feel like a criminal.”

“Magistrate Johnson had you up on Banditry charges back in Aprilis Month, did he not?” Horace asked flatly.

“No witnesses to da alleged robbery, so ‘e ‘ad ta drop da case,” Terry said, smiling a wide grin at Horace. “’sides, I was innocent enough. Dat sonofabitch Gump  – ‘e was da one Johnson shoulda been after.”

“’Innocent enough,’ eh?” Horace shook his head. “No, Terry. I know you were friends with our son, and a sweet lad at that - back in those days, anyway. That does not change the fact that you have grown into a proper shiteheel. My wife is satisfied that you are an unsafe bet for credit. Sauce for the goose, sauce for the chicken.”

“Don’t ya mean, ‘what’s good fer da goose is good fer da gand-‘”

Like his best mate, Edward Gump, Terry Goodall forgot himself. And like Gump, he would never forget this forgetting for as long as he lived. When Horace was finished with him, he was lying prone in the red snowy mud of a cool Ianuarius Month night, his face and body a pastiche of bruises and regret. The last thing he remembered before falling asleep and waking up again the next morning in the Magistrate’s lock up facing charges of Vagrancy was catching sight of the big sign outside of the inn. Bearing a fresh coat of paint, one of Horace’s many projects during his month-long stint as a young man once more, it featured the image of a big onyx iron kettle. In great big letters painted underneath, it said:

‘The Black Kettle – Kalingshire’s Finest Inn’

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶ ✶