A sudden draft of late autumn air set the handful of tallow candles illuminating the interior of the Inn of the Hungry Shark to fitful flickering. As the tavern’s inhabitants at a few hours after midnight consisted of only the sleepy-eyed staff and a few groggy stragglers, no one had noticed the soundless opening of the heavy oak front door. But the prolonged change in temperature eventually drew stares. For several moments, the gray cloaked figure of a motionless Atros stood in stark contrast to the overcast night beyound the entrance way. A change had overcome his appearance. He no longer bore the guise of Raffen Yeggent with its white facial talk and near foppish stylings. Atros’ long brown hair and somber gray floor-length cloak fluttered in the draft. But more subtly Atros’ eyes seemed gripped by determination and touched by a quality of madness. It was certain that most of the tavern’s clientele would give Atros a wide berth and continual observation.
Finally, Atros entered and quickly located the night shift innkeep, a portly war veteran whose strength and firmness earned him respect in an establishment frequented by roughens and cut throats.
“I would like to speak with you in private,” Atros began in a low volume.
“I’m working. ‘Sides, if I turn my back for a shake, I’ll be robbed blind by customer and lackey alike,” the innkeep answered, clearing the bar counter of dirty mugs.
“Perhaps that table in the corner, you could watch the room from there,” Atros suggested a bit impatiently.
“Look here, I haven’t time to spend with every lonely thug who wanders in. Find someone else to bugger!” The innkeep’s temper began to show.
“You…” Atros began to raise his voice, then thought better of it. “Perhaps I should begin again.” Atros hefted a small satchel of coins onto the counter but kept his hand on the bundle. “Now, will you talk?”
“This way…” The innkeep led Atros to the corner table and and took a chair with his back to the wall. After collecting the satchel, Atros selected the opposite wall.
“What is this about?” the innkeep whispered.
“I know a man named Thad frequented this place for a few days about two weeks ago.”
“There’s many a jack who muster through that door. I don’t let names bother me much.”
“He was exceptionally tall and broad, dark black hair, boyish face with a permanent sneer. A single scar here,” Atros added pointing at his right temple.
“Him. A bad sort, I hear rumors.”
“Whom did he talk to here? Did he met anyone? Get any messages?” Atros asked eagerly.
The innkeep seemed to mull this over for a time in his mind then said “Let’s see your coin. This’ll take gold.”
Atros spread the contents of the satchel and added a few gold coins from somewhere beneath the table. As he was doing this, Darla entered the tavern. Atros glanced once at her and once at a distant empty table. Darla ducked over toward that table trying not to attract attention. The innkeep was so lost in counting the coins with his eyes that he missed this exchange.
Seeming satisfied, the innkeep began, “He spoke with no one ‘cept the whores…and some men who let a room upstairs for a time,” he concluded in a whisper.
“Who were they?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from carrying.
“Like I say, I don’t know names…except maybe one… It’ll take the pile,” the innkeep pointed at the coins, “those men are dangerous and kept to themselves.”
“Fine. What was the name?” Atros answered quickly.
“That one didn’t come much. He was always trying to slip past but his fine clothes made him odd enough to notice. I’d seen him before…had him pointed out to me at any rate. He was,” the innkeep hesitated and looked uncomfortable, “Dargon’s High Wizard…Griswald Butsum or somethin’ or other.” His whisper was nearly inaudible.
Atros could not contain a surprised expression as he pushed the coins across the table to the innkeep, who eagerly gathered them into a pouch hidden inside his cloak.
“These men, what did they look like? How many were they?”
The innkeep delayed before answering. “I’m already deep into somethin’ big. Somethin’ I don’t understand. No more answers.” He began to get up.
“Wait!” Atros caught him by the wrist. “I’ll double that amount.”
“What use is gold to a dead man?” the innkeep pronounced, broke free forcibly, and hurried into the kitchen.
Atros stood, crossed the room, and motioned for Darla to follow.
Once they had left the tavern and were safely walking the darkened streets side by side, Darla asked “So what’s this tremendous thing you’ve learned?”
“How do you know I learned anything at all?” Atros asked.
“You wouldn’t have given up a small fortune for nothing.”
This remark broke Atros’ stride for a moment but he was quick to recover. “Be that as it may, everything seems to becoming more complicated.” As they walked, Atros quickly and precisely informed Darla of his discussion with the innkeep.
“You haven’t any enemies in Dargon that I don’t know about, do you?” Darla asked playfully.
“No, not that I know of,” Atros answered, “I’m worried that the high wizard was contracted to finish the task that Thad failed. I generally avoid tangles with wizards of all sorts.”
“Seems to be a good policy,” Darla responded.
“You’ve been around me too much these past few weeks, you’re starting to pick up my dry sense of humor,” Atros observed chidingly.
“Perhaps,” Darla agreed solemnly.
Atros stopped walking and waited until Darla turned back to face him. “Are you mocking me?” His voice was steady, betraying neither anger nor humor.
“No! Of course not. I wouldn’t do a thing like that.” Darla was perhaps over quick to reply. “I’ve just learned so much from you. I pick up things quickly,” she finished weakly.
Expressionless Atros began walking again. They continued together some distance in silence.
“If you are so quick to learn, why have your reading lessons gone so slowly?” Atros asked looking forward.
Darla gasped quietly then said “I haven’t the patience or the time. I just can’t see what use it all is.”
Atros began, “Books are any culture’s, or any man’s, sole means of preserving themselves. They are reservoirs of information that would otherwise be lost…” He continued in the same vein.
The rest of the lecture was lost on Darla. She was overcome by relief for managing to distract Atros from her deception. It was a small thing really. But she felt that if her ability to read was discovered, Atros would lose all trust in her. She felt guilty about reading Atros’ personal papers and diaries but couldn’t resist. She was worried that her knowledge showed. She had made several near slips over the past two weeks and had thought that Atros’ question about her lessons might have arisen from well founded suspicions. But apparently her answer had placated him. Caught up in her own thoughts, she listened to Atros’ voice drone with an occasional nod.
Thus both were being slightly incautious when suddenly a bright light from the alley way before them stung their eyes. The surprise was complete, their response predictable. They threw up their arms to block the blinding rays of a phosphorus lamp and were momentarily stunned into inaction. A disembodied voice to the right called Atros’ name and he turned removing his hand from is face. An instant later he was tackled from the rear. An armored man seized Darla while another attempted to bind her hands. As her vision cleared, she screamed and fought, kicking indiscriminately with her feet while trying to break her arms free. Atros was having trouble of his own. Through more accident than skill he managed during his fall to break free of the arms clinched about his waist and to roll to his feet. Atros’ assailant landed face first on the cobblestones and was slow to recover.
Atros took the opportunity to draw his rarely used sword and survey his opponents. There were three, all armed, all armored, and all somewhat experienced. Atros felt a sinking feeling his stomach but managed a quick flourish and charged his assailant, who now stood between Darla and himself. The tackler had apparently been chosen more for mass than for quickness. Still his armor would turn all but Atros’ best placed thrusts. Atros seemed doomed to fight a war of attrition with the giant, who now bore a hand and a half sword, a weapon capable of splitting the unarmored Atros in half. It was times like this, that Atros wished he’d taken real sword wielding lessons or at least bothered to select a religion. Atros cursed himself, distracted by that thought he had missed a critical opening. Atros resolved to fight instinctively and cut off thinking so much. He allowed his anger to flare. He must make it to Darla.
After several moments of futile effort, the onslaught that was Darla relented. Without a weapon, she could only inconvenience, not harm, her two armored opponents. It occurred to her that perhaps a more subtle strategy might be called for. Almost as soon as her fury subsided, one of her assailants, noticing his companion’s difficulties with Atros, pronounced “Here, take her”, shoved Darla into his partner, and strode toward the more active melee.
Atros was tiring rapidly now. He was out of condition and the nepenthe seemed to drain his endurance. He met the entrance of a second opponent into the fray with mixed emotions. He seemed certainly doomed now, but perhaps Darla could find a chance to escape. She’d done nothing; it must be him they wanted.
The outcome of the battle had long been decided. Atros’ two opponents began to jeer and taunt him, as he grew steadily more helpless. Atros’ anger gave him some strength, but it would not be enough. He fought on, knowing he appeared awkward and comical now. He almost wished they’d end it quickly, if only to save his pride.
At long last, the obvious occurred to the ruffian who held Darla captive. “Wait,” he called out to his companions, “we have the girl. We can make him stop fighting.” He held one of Darla’s arms in a painful hold behind her back. Still, she did not struggle. Like Atros, she seemed to have accepted her fate.
“Why? It’s just becoming fun,” the taller opponent responded while swinging his sword in a wild, wide arc.
“We can take them alive. We’d get more gold for it,” Darla’s captor suggested. Distracted by the conversation, his hold on Darla’s arm was loosening.
“What makes you think that? Nobody said anything about bringing them in alive,” snapped the third finishing in a child’s rendition of a fiendish grin.
Darla saw her opportunity and took it. She clutched a short dagger from her captor’s belt and attempted to drive the blade into his exposed neck. Her aim was poor but she did manage a painful and bloody gash to the base of his chin, just left of his Adam’s apple.
He whirled, cried “Bitch”, and struck her across her right temple with his gauntleted hand. She never noticed that a small punch dagger was affixed to the back of his gauntlet. The blade scraped bone and Darla went down in a slight spray of blood. She lapsed into unconsciousness.
Atros let out a piercing shriek and tried to break through to Darla, but was prevented by his two opponents. Confusion reigned as the combat became a scuffle. After a few long moments of wrestling on the darkened cobblestones, Atros felt the weight of his larger attacker lifted from him and heard a resounding crash some distance away. He looked up to see the outline of a short cloaked figure leaning over tussle. The man took hold of his remaining opponent by the head and quickly snapped his cervical vertebrae. With a momentary feeling of deja vu, Atros pushed the corpse off himself. His rescuer extended a hand to help Atros to his feet. Atros noticed that the hand was large, coarse, and cool. The distant sound of fleeing footsteps could be faintly heard.
“They’re gone?” Atros inquired shaken.
The cloaked man nodded and walked over to Darla’s motionless body. Atros had enough sense to fetch the overturned phosphorous lamp to aid in examining her wounds. He stumbled a bit, obviously exhausted, but he couldn’t ignore Darla’s need now to rest.
For the first time, their rescuer’s face was illuminated by the light of the lamp.
“Gilman!” Atros shouted, unable to control his surprise.
“Gilman no longer…” He spoke softly in monotone. “Though I remember being Gilman once.” Looks of fear, comprehension and awe swept across Atros’ features. He stood stunned while Gilman began binding Darla’s wounds with strips of fabric from his tunic.
“Who…What are you now?” Atros inquired softly, hesitantly.
“A servant of our master, yours and mine,” Gilman pronounced ominously. “You understand.” It was not a question.
“My tormentor,” Atros whispered under his breath.
“Yes that too… You must go quickly now. I will hold off pursuit.” Though the opponent had been repelled, both instinctively knew they would return soon in greater numbers.
“I have so many questions,” Atros began.
“They will wait,” Gilman cut in. “I have a message for you.”
Atros hesitated, reluctant to ask. Finally, he nodded.
“All of your preparations are unnecessary. To meet the master of your dreams you need only to hold the desire and to sleep.” Gilman’s words rung like a muffled bell to Atros’ ears.
Drawing into himself, Atros’ only acknowledgement of the message was a soft grunt or moan. He had hoped that he was wrong.
“Go now…quickly,” Gilman advised, lifting the partially conscious Darla to her feet. Atros supported her and began hurriedly limping away.
After a short distance, Darla could walk no farther even with Atros’ support. Her mind wasn’t lucid then. She hummed softly to herself and spoke in fragments of remembered conversations. No tears stained Atros’ cheeks as he lifted the semiconscious Darla in his arms and staggered under his burden, but only because Atros had forgotten how to cry long ago. Atros knew that she needed a place where she could receive immediate medical help and much rest, but no such haven existed in this neighborhood. It would be foolish to return to the flophouse now as well. His best hope for a healer lay in the wealthier areas nearer The Keep. He was well past his normal physical limits of endurance and he knew that he would require several days recuperation himself. Trying to block out his own pain and exhaustion, Atros carried Darla though the empty, darkened streets of Dargon for a time that seemed to stretch into hours. Atros’ own mind began to lose clarity and he lost his direction. He wandered aimlessly for some time, occasionally calling out to empty alley ways or vague shapes.
As he grew weaker and his thoughts more primitive, his only desires were flight and safety. The weakness and pain blurred his senses. It was in this condition that Atros, with Darla in his arms, staggered into a darkly dressed gentleman stepping out of a darkened doorway. The man cried out in surprise as Atros sank to his knees still supporting Darla.
Seeing the blood and bandages, the man exclaimed “She’s hurt. Quickly inside, in the light,” and helped Atros carry Darla through the entrance way into a dimly lit foyer They placed Darla on a hard wooden bench cushioned with woolen cloaks from pegs on the walls. As soon as this was finished, the gentleman turned up the oil lamp and turned toward Atros and Darla. Without the facial talc it took a moment for recognition to dawn on him. “Raffen!?! Raffen Yeggent?” he exclaimed.
Atros looked at the gentleman’s face for the first time and dimly remembered speaking to the man once at dance hall during the festival. Could it have been only a few weeks ago? Atros’ thoughts cleared and he remembered the scholar who studied myths and legends. “Pravo” he said weakly.
“Who is the girl? No, never mind that now. It doesn’t matter. A friend of yours, I suppose?” Pravo asked.
Groggily, Atros nodded. He couldn’t keep up with Pravo’s words.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of her. She’ll be alright. You rest. You look exhausted.” Pravo’s tongue seemed hyperactive.
Once again, Atros nodded.
Pravo set to examining Darla’s wounds while Atros slumped against the base of the opposite wall. Pravo’s hands worked quickly and efficiently. He seemed to know what he was doing and at the moment that was good enough for Atros who slid into a stupor.
But Pravo wouldn’t let him rest. “How did this happen?” he asked.
“Muggers in the street,” Atros answered barely conscious.
“Where?” Pravo inquired.
“Down by the wharves near the Hungry Shark,” Atros smiled with his eyes closed, seeming amused, but Pravo never looked back at him.
“They take your purses? Why’d they hurt her? What’s her name?”
“Darla,” Atros answered, slightly amused.
“The initial bandaging was done quite skillfully. She hasn’t lost much blood. She’ll be fine in a few days. Maybe a scar though.”
“Good.” Atros began to chuckle quietly to himself but stopped when he realized it wasn’t really funny. After a few moments he drifted into unconsciousness.
Atros awoke a few hours before dawn on the entry way floor with a coarse blanket over him. He was confused and slightly frightened. But after several moments of sitting in the dimly lit room, the events of last night came to him. Darla no longer lay on the bench and Pravo was no place to be found. Atros’ arms and legs were sore beyond imagining. He got up slowly, stiffly and wandered further into the house. The second door he came to was open. A short tallow candle burned on a high shelf. Darla lay in a large comfortable bed. In the soft glow she looked very beautiful, very vulnerable. Seeing the bandages covering her temple, Atros felt a surge of guilt. He knelt beside the bed and took her hand into his own.
“I’m sorry Darla, I never meant for anything to happen to you,” Atros began. Darla moved slightly in her sleep.
“They wanted me and you were a convenient tool.” His breathing was irregular, his voice hoarse. Darla stirred slightly.
“You must forgive me. I’ve failed you. I let them hurt you,” Atros went on weakly, eyes cast downward.
“Shhhh. Be quiet, Atros….You have nothing to be forgiven for. You don’t don’t have to protect me. I’ve always taken care of myself.” Darla reached out to Atros and gently stroked his dark hair.
“I’m no swordsman…no hero. A quick jab of a blade in surprise maybe, but not a real fight.” Atros’ voice cracked. Still, he could not face her.
“I know, Atros. I know. But you are a hero. My hero. You saved me and provided for me. My wounds are my own fault. You have cared for me. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” She was gentle, motherly.
There was a long silence.
It was broken finally by the entrance of Pravo. “I thought I heard talking,” he said entering in a nightshirt. “You should be both be asleep,” he said accusingly. “There will be time for talking tomorrow. Darla needs her rest.” Pravo sounded annoyed though inwardly he was happy to find Darla awake, it was a good sign. “Oh, yes Darla, we haven’t been formally introduced. I’m Pravo, a friend of Raffen, and master of this house. You are welcome here until you are well again. The healer has gone now, but will return tomorrow and guarantees that you will be well soon. Provided you rest, of course.” Pravo said smiling. “Now, if you excuse me, I will show Raffen to his room.”
Pravo took Atros by the hand and escorted him down the hall to another bed room. Atros tried to as if he were totally well, but Pravo could not avoid noticing his stiff gate. The room which Pravo gave him was not nearly as grand as Darla’s, which Atros now realized must be that of the lady of the house. Atros inquired.
Pravo said, “That room is vacant. I live alone now.”
Atros was surprised, to live in such a large house without servants was unusual. He asked, “You are widowed?”
Pravo answered obviously painfully,”No. My wife left me many years ago. I dismissed the staff.”
Atros was sorry that he had asked.
Pravo changed the subject. “There is water is the pitcher, linen in the chest, as well as some clothing that might fit.”
Pravo turned to Atros, seemed to consider for a moment then said, “She calls you ‘Atros’….There was an ‘Atros’ in Arbor two years back… Who are you?” Pravo asked, facing Atros.
“What do you know of that man in Arbor?” he responded cautiously.
“Very little really. He stayed with a colleague of mine named Baughis. Baughis wrote a letter praising his Atros’ scholastic talents and congratulating himself for the find of such a remarkable young talent in the slums.” Pravo paused a moment. “The next letter was filled with curses upon an ungrateful runt who relieved Baughis of half his library and departed unexpectedly.” Pravo straightened his stance and looked Atros in the eye. “You are that Atros, no?”
“No..” Atros said obviously lying. But after a moment “Yes, I am that Atros….You must forgive me. Those books were very important to me at the time. I took them only because my need was very great…You must understand.” A distraught Atros plead. If only he could justify himself to someone just this once.
“Understand?” Pravo watched the youth, made some decision, and chuckled. “I nearly laughed myself to death reading that second letter.” Pravo continued smiling, “Baughis is a pompous old fool who never finished a book in his life. It just pleases his ego to play at being a great mind. He buys rare books with inherited money and then gets great pleasure form having more renown and less wealthy scholars beg to borrow some unique tome. No, I have no qualms about that incident…But Raffen, Atros rather, who are you really?”
A moments silence passed. “It’s been so long…I really don’t know anymore,” Atros replied weakly.
“Come now, you are still young. It could not be so long a story.”
“But it is. A very long story filled with lifetimes of memories…They all begin to run together…I am uncertain. I no longer know truth from lie, reality from dream.” Atros mind drifted.
“You are still tired,” Pravo says sounding concerned. “We will talk when your mind is cleared. Sleep now.” Pravo left the bedroom.
Atros retrieved the bottle of nepenthe from his satchel, began to unstopper the cork, and then hesitated for a long moment.
“No, despite what Pravo thinks, I am still strong…Strong enough for this.” Atros whispered to himself, then returned the drug to the satchel. He laid down on the firm straw pallet and quickly fell asleep.