The sun was already setting when Shashank finally reached the town. It was in the middle of nowhere, the prison mine being the only thing for miles around. He found the inn easily, dismantled and turned into the stable. A servant was shovelling dirt and dung from one stall, and he called out: “Excuse me, could you show me a box for my horses?”
“I’ll take care of it, if it pleases you, Sir.”, the man said, turning around.
“Oh, you’ve got your hand full. It’s no hardship.” he said.
The man came out of the box and opened the next one. “I’ve just cleaned this one, Milord.”
Shashank lead his horse in, and started to unsaddle her. The groom took care of the pack horse, and brought fresh water and fodder. “Thanks”, Shashank said, when he noticed something. The man was missing his right thumb. Shashank narrowed his eyes. As the man turned to get back to the other box, he said “Wait a moment, please.”
The groom tensed up, but slowly turned around to face him. He didn’t look up, but it was still easy to spot that he had been branded. A large rune – spelling out traitor – covered his left cheek.
“Could you look at me?”, Shashank said. It was not a question.
The man looked up. Defensive and wary, awaiting … not nice things, that much was clear. Brown eyes, high cheekbones, a round nose. His hair might have been blond if not for the dirt. Shashank tried to place the face. He had seen this man before. But the war had ended a little over ten years ago. All this time in a hard labour prison would change a man.
“Make sure you groom them thoroughly. And take a look at their hooves!”
“Yes, Milord, of course!” the man said hastily. Shashank shouldered his saddle bags, and started to move to the main house. Something to eat and a little rest would help him remember this man. He just did not know what he would do with the knowledge.
The innkeeper was falling over himself with pleasure, once he recognized Shashank. “Lord Terillian, it’s such an honour! To think that my humble establishment might host our saviour! The Paladin of the Realm! Please, allow me to show you my best room!”
There was a reason why Shashank did not travel far from his own lands unless duty called. At home, people had gotten used to him.Everywhere else, he was a warrior mage out of legends, the Chosen One, the Paladin who had saved the kingdom from the Demon Lord.
Once he had his room, the innkeeper rushed to bring him something to drink and make sure a fresh meal was prepared for him.
“Thank you”, Shashank said, once he was settled with some nice, warm cider in front of the fireplace. It was nice to get warm again. The visit in the prison had chilled him in more ways than one. It had turned out to be a pretty useless visit, too.
“Your meal is going to be here soon, Milord Terillian.”, The innkeeper said. “Is there anything else I might bring you? Would you like to bath after dinner?”
“Oh, that would be nice, yes.” A bath would really help to get the cold out of his bones. He addressed the innkeeper: “Your groom …”
“The traitor! Please excuse me, Milord, of course you would not have one of them handling your horses!”
“No, that’s fine. Unless he’s going to try something.”
“Oh no, Milord, he’s wouldn’t dare! He’s tame.” The innkeeper babbled. “Please don’t think that I’ve got any sympathy for the likes of him, Milord! He’s just cheap labour, and guests love to show him his place. He makes a half-decent whore, too. If that’s your pastime, we could hose him down and send him to you?”
Shashank blinked. What the hell was wrong with this guy? “No“, he said. “I’m not in the habit.”
The meal that he got served was plenty of food, more than enough for two or three people. It was better than he would have suspected, given how worn-down the inn looked. A knock on the door signalled the arrival of his bathtub. The man who dragged it in was the stable groom. Shashank raised his eyebrows. Maybe he was the only male servant around? He had seen only waitresses in the main room. The man bowed deeply, left, and returned shortly with two buckets of water.
The continued for some time. Shashank concentrated on his food, but made sure to keep an eye on the man. Sometimes, there were still a few fanatics left who wanted to kill him for defeating their Lord. But this one showed no murderous tendencies, at least not now. He was just filling the tub with hot water, bucket after bucket.Well, if he was waiting until Shashank was in the bathtub, he was in for a nasty surprise.Shashank took his protective spells very seriously. These days, it would take more than one would-be assassin to overpower him.
But after the last bucket, he didn’t come back. The tub was not even half way filled. Maybe this was his idea of revenge? Not enough hot water?
This was when he heard the noise from downstairs. Shashank got up to investigate what had happened.
The water was everywhere. In the middle of this soaking mess, the groom lay sprawled on the floor. He had managed to get to his knees, as one of the guests kicked him.
“Please, I need to get water for Lord Terillian.” He said.
“Look at the mess you made! Disgusting! I’m sure Lord Terillian would not want to be served by the likes of you anyway.”
“I’m sure he’d like his hot bath, no matter who brings the water.” The groom said under this breath. This earned him another kick.
“Oh, are we getting uppity now? You’re forgetting your place, traitor!” The man kicked him again, and slammed his head into the floor. “Time for another reminder, right, friends?”
The other guests were laughing and yelling encouragements. “You know the drill, traitor!” The man smiled meanly. The groom took a shuddering breath, and closed his eyes briefly. Then he said: “Would you allow this unworthy piece of vermin to clean your boots, Master?”
“By all means, be my guest! If you’re good, you get to lick other things, too.” The man said, cruelly and full of pleasure. He took a seat, stretched out his legs, and waited.
What was wrong with these people? Shashank thought. As the groom bend forward and actually started to lick the man’s boots, he stepped forward. “Hey! Where is my water?! I’ve been waiting long enough!”
He ignored the other people, and focused on the groom. “Water. Now! After that, I’ll find something to do with you for the rest of the night.”
The man blanched, but gathered the buckets and went on his task. It didn’t take long for him to fill the tube, and Shashank finally got his bath.
A short time later, he started to relax, washed himself, and considered the groom again. The man was kneeling near the door, looking down at the floor, trying to make himself invisible without leaving the room. Something about the face was still searching in Shashank’s mind.
Suddley, the memory was there: “You’re the little git that ruined Lia’s dress! The Yule ball!” The man looked up, startled. “You spilled wine all over her dress and made some pretty nastic remarks about her heritage, once you’ve realized she was Olani. You’re General Heaston’s son, right? Jessak?”
Some kind of emotion crossed Heaston’s face.
“What?” Shashank said.
“Everything I did in the war, and the fact that I was rude to your wife is going to be my downfall.”
“You think that was funny?!”
Any humour vanished from Heaston’s face. “Of course not, Milord. Please forgive me. I know that I deserve punishment for what I did.”
He was still kneeling, keeping his head down again. Shashank’s anger vanished. He had been a rude little shit to Olianna, and he had fought in a rebellion against the crown, but that seemed like a lifetime ago. Right now, there was not anything left of that arrogant young noble.
“Are you hurt?” Shashank asked.
“Are you hurt? The asshole downstairs kicked you, how are your ribs?”
“What’s wrong with your arm? The left one?” Shashank asked. The arm in question didn’t look right.
“That’s an old injury. They broke it in prison. The fingers, too. And the other arm. The left one didn’t heal right.”
Shashank frowned. He knew, of course, that the guards tended to mistreat the prisoners. But this seemed extreme.
“It’s a mine, a labour prison. Didn’t that made you useless for work?”
Heaston shrugged. “They wanted to see what I was willing to do to be allowed a healer. Or food. After a few days, it turned out the answer was pretty much anything. I’m a talented whore, given the right motivation.”
“I’m sorry.” Shashank said. There wasn’t anything else to say. Another shrug. Then Heaston asked, with a terrible blank face: “It this a service I’m required to provide for you, Master?”
“What? No! I just wanted to stop the men downstairs from hurting you anymore.”
Heaston shrugged. “This was just humiliation. Being humiliated in the main room equals a good night. Licking boots is by far the worst that they can make me do. It’s a bad night if they take me to a room and get creative one by one.”
He gave Shashank another blank look: “If you don’t want to fuck me, do you wish to get creative, too? I’m required to inform you that I still need to be able to work tomorrow. No permanent damage.”
Shashank still didn’t knew what to say. “I’m not in the habit of torturing people.”
That earned him a nasty smile. “Oh, but I’m not people anymore.”
Shashank ignored it. “There is food left. Help yourself.”
This made Heaston frown suspicious at him. “What is this meal going to cost me?”, he asked. “I’d rather not eat if I vomit it up later anyway.”
Soaking in the hot water had been nice, but now Shashank started to get a headache. “I’m not going to fuck you, I’m not going to torture you, and I don’t have any ulterior motive. I’m just offering a meal, because you look like you could need it. Take it or leave it, I don’t care.”
Heaston got up and snatched the plate form the table. He remained standing, clutching the plate close to his chest, and was wolfing down the food. Shashank got out of the tube, towed up and dressed himself. “If you’re finished, you can take this away,” he said with a nod in direction of the bathtub.
After some time, Heaston returned with fresh bruise on his face. Shashank raised his eyebrows. The man hunched into himself. “I was not making trouble! There are new guests. One of them saw the branding, and started to hit me until the innkeeper told him off. Anyway, they’re staying a week, so he’s going to have plenty of opportunity to do it again.”
“Oh for God’s sake!” Shashank growled. “Get here!” Heaston actually took a step back, before he visibly composed himself and stood in front of Shashank. But Shashank wasn’t going to hit him, too.
“Healing is not my speciality, but I’m decent enough.” He explained. He lifted his fingers to the other man’s face, causing the bruise to heal and vanish. Then he reached deeper with his magic. Two ribs were cracked, but easy enough to mend. He send little sparks of magic anywhere else he could find injuries. There were far too many, and it made him sick. Something was resisting, and he opened his eyes.
“Give me your left hand.” He took the hand in his own, carefully examining it. “You can’t even bend the fingers, right?”
They were stuck into a claw-like position, making it impossible to bend them and really hold on to something.
“It’s difficult.” Heaston said. “It’s worse now because of the cold.”
Shashank wrapped a warming spell around the whole arm. “That’s going to hold for tonight, make the muscles and tendons relax. A really good healer could repair the whole arm, but it would be a long and tendinous work. Too many parts healed wrong.”
Heaston didn’t seemed troubled by this. He was cradling the arm close to his body, looking liked someone who had a very big weight lifted from them.
“Thank you” he whispered. This must have been the first time in years the arm wasn’t causing him pain. Basic human decency wasn’t something one should be thankful for, in Shashank’s opinion. He threw the blankets from the bed in front of Heaston. He preferred his travel bedroll anyway.
“You can sleep here. But if you’re trying to murder me in my sleep, you’re going to be in for a few nasty surprises.”
This earned him another wide eyed look. “Take it or leave it, Heaston.”, Shashank said.
The other man blinked and shook his head. “Not Heaston anymore, Milord. Lost that name ten years ago. If anything, just Ril.”
“Right, Ril. Go to bed.” Shashank got under the covers and turned the lights off with his magic.
“Good night, Milord. Thank you.” came Ril’s voice through the darkness.
As it turned out, Shashank could not sleep. After the war was over, he had been glad to have won, glad to be alive, and he had never looked back. Olianna and he had started to rebuild her lands and build a home for them and their future children. He had been to the trials of Lord Arrak’s surviving followers, but he’d never spend much thought on the soldiers and minor knights who had been trialled en masse and had mostly been send to the mines and other hard labour prisons.
He knew they all had their right thumb amputated. It made it impossible for them to ever hold a sword against the crown again. But it would made also everyday tasks hard or impossible. Something that never bothered him before.
But now he wondered what had happened in the mines to turn an arrogant, proud young noble into a weary man who considered a night of public humiliation and beatings a good one. He would had never thought the likes of Jeril of Heaston would survive the hard labour in the mines. Even if he had been a trained knight.
In the morning, he woke to the sound of the door opening and his spells blasting a warning to him. He was on his feet in an instance, magical fire floating around his hands, ready to strike down an intruder. He felt kind of stupid at the sight of Ril, who was trying to sneak out the door. The other man turned around slowly, spread his arms wide and went to his knees.
“Please forgive me, Milord! I did not meant to startle you.”
“What were you trying to do?” Shashank asked.
“I have work to do. I apologize, I should have awaited your orders. Would you like to make use of me?”
“You could get breakfast. Big enough for two.” Shashank said.
When he returned with the food, Ril arranged everything at the table, and dropped to his knees once more. “Sit down”, Shashank said. “I actually ordered this much to share.”
Ril slowly sat down across from him, and said: “I wouldn’t dare to assume. I’m not that stupid anymore.”
After an encouraging nod, he reached for a piece of bread. His hand was shaking. Shashank raised his eyebrows, but remained quiet. He could guess that the other man was fighting unpleasant memories. Maybe they even featured him. Shashank had killed a lot of enemies with battle magic, during the war.
“When did you get released from prison?” Shashank asked after a few minutes.
“Two months ago, Milord.”, Ril looked up. “What you really want to know is why I’m here, letting people beat me and fuck me for fun, right?”
Shashank raised his eyebrows. The other man looked down again. “Sorry, Milord.”
“I guess that’s the only town around, and you didn’t had any means to travel?”
“Yes. Nobody had work for a traitor, and even the beggars objected to my presence. Teso offered a place to sleep, and food. Better then starving to death.”
Ril actually looked half starved, so the food the Innkeeper offered as pay could not be more then scraps. But “Better then dying” had probably the motto that kept him alive the last years.
“So, what are your plans?” Shashank asked. The other man shrugged: “Survive until spring, get out of here as soon as the weather’s good enough to live in the woods.”
Hunting without any real equipment would be incredibly difficult, and even if he stole some knifes and other equipment. He would most likely starve, or die in some accident far away from any civilisation. From the look on his face, Ril knew it, too.
A short time later, Shashank got ready to leave. Teso the Innkeeper wasn’t going to take his coins, swearing again and agin that it had been an honour to host the saviour. Shashank still put some of the coins in his hands, and also in the hands of the maids, and told the Innkeeper: “Think of it as a tip for excellent service.”
“Yes, Milord! Thank you, Milord! We would be happy to accommodate you again!”
He had shouldered his saddlebags and was waiting for Ril to bring his horses out of the stable. It was cold, but not snowing yet. If the weather was holding, it would take him two days to travel up to Garnouk’s pass. Another three days, and he would be home again.
There was a loud voice coming from the stable, and a horse crying out. Sashank went inside. He found his riding horse saddled up, but at first, no sight of Ril. But then he saw him. One of the merchants had grabbed him at the throat, pressing him against the wall. He whispered something that made Ril pale.
“Excuse me!” Shashank said. “My horses?”
“Oh, excuse me, Lord Terillian!” the merchant said. He kicked Ril between the legs and let go. Ril fell to the ground, gasping for breath. “See you tonight! And tomorrow night. We’re going to have so much fun!” the merchant said, and walked out.
Shashank went over to Ril. He remained curled up in a fetale position, still gasping for breath, trying to breathe through the pain. He tried to get up, but didn’t really made it.
“Sorry!” he said. “Sorry, just …”
“Take it slow,” Shashank said. “I’m not in a hurry.”
He went and put the bridle on the packhorse, leading it out of the stable. Just as he started to get back inside, Ril appeared with his other horse. He was still limping, but the worst seemed to have passed.
“Here’s your horse, Milord. Sorry for the delay.” He said.
Shashank mounted his horse. He wanted to say something. But the other man was already turning back to the stables. “Have a save journey, Milord.”
“Wait!” Shashank said. The other man stopped, tensing up. Like a beaten dog, waiting for a kick.
He turned around slowly. “Milord?” he asked, his face carefully blank.
“Come with me. You don’t have to stay here.” Shashank said, surprising himself.
“I thought you weren’t looking for a whore, Milord. Or a punching bag.” Ril said.
“I breed horses. We can always use a stable hand.”
Ril narrowed his eyes. “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. You telling me to choose between the devil I know and the devil I don’t.”
“True.” Shashank said. “But I promise, I don’t bring people home to torture them. If that were the case, do you really think that I would use a ruse and go through all this? To be frank, I would just offer the Innkeeper some coins and buy you.”
Rils hands had closed to fists, and he had gone pale.
“I’m sorry,” Shashank said. “That was a cruel thing to say. I guess me word as a Paladin and a knight of the realm means nothing to you.” He did not ad “Not anymore”.
What he said was: “I’m swearing on the life of my children that I don’t mean you harm. This is not some sick mind game to get revenge. I swear that I’ll do my best to keep you safe.”
Ril looked at him, blinking. Trying to figure out if Shashank’s offer was real. Trying to figure out if he could dare to trust an enemy. An enemy who probably killed far too many of this friends in the war.
Shashank returned the look, trying to keep an open expression.
It must have been a very, very long ten years.
He had a sneaking suspicion that his people were going to throw a fit. Maybe even his wife.
But there were moments when an enemy could not remain an enemy.