A dwarf and an elf sit hunched at the round table. Eyes moving between each other, the cards in their hands, and the cards on the table. They don’t look anywhere else. It’s game time. What happens around them does not register.
Some of the other patrons in The Dusty Tankard occasionally look over to watch the game too. But mostly, they focus on their ale. The Dusty Tankard is not a lively place, quite the opposite. People come here to drink. Sometimes they come to talk, but that is done quietly, and usually with a sense of secrecy. Or conspiracy.
The dwarf stares at her cards, she only needs one more pair to win. But the elf… the elf is already too steps ahead. The dwarf runs one broad hand over her long black hair.
‘Make your move, Aleece,’ the elf said with a cruel grin.
‘Fendas, quiet,’ Aleece doesn’t look up from her hand.
‘Don’t get testy, oh broad one. You know, in some parts of the city they play this game with a timepiece?’
‘Is that so?’
‘Why yes, they even say that it is a part of the rules. That if you take too long to play a hand you forfeit your turn. I feel like that is something we should adopt.’
‘You would have no one to play with,’ Aleece said placing three more cards down. ‘Or show you how to play.’
Fendas’ eyes moved from the dwarves face to the cards on the table, back to the dwarf, then to his own cards, and back to the dwarf, ‘Hmm, a fine play. A fine play indeed.’
Had they not been so engrossed in their game they would have noticed a large figure clad in hard, black leather and covered by a heavy brown cloak enter the tavern. Had the tavern not already been quiet there would have been a noticeable hushed silence. Had this been anywhere else in Penkarth the figure would have been seen, recognised, and avoided.
However, this was The Dusty Tankard and no one batted an eyelid.
Daffid, in the inn keep, didn’t look phased when they took their hood off revealing a heavily scarred face, heavily pierced ears, and black eyes. Nor was he surprised he the man asked for a bottle of whisky and two glasses.
The large scared man moved to a booth at the far end of the room and sat down. Poured two glasses of whisky and drank from one of them. He then removed a pouch of smoke, rolling papers, and matches. He rolled four and lit one. Downed his drink and poured himself another. The other glass remained on the other side of the table untouched.
‘You won’t win,’ Fendas said, ‘You know this, right?’
‘Quiet elf,’ Aleece grunted and watched as Fendas lay down a range of cards. Strong cards, an excellent hand in fact. Aleece cursed under her breath.
‘What was that?’
‘Shut up, young man. Focus on your own hand.’
‘I’m at least 30 years older than you.’
‘And yet, you look and act like an adolescent.’
‘Don’t be offended by my youth!’
‘Not offended,’ Aleece put down two cards, ‘We’ll call that a game I think.’
‘What?’ Fendas stared at the arrangement of cards on the table. ‘Unbelievable! You know, for a miner with a head filled with rocks. You certainly know how to bluff.’
‘Watch it,’ Aleece glared at the elf for a moment. But then a smile spread across her face. ‘If you’d ever been to a Miners Union meet you’d understand why that is.’
Fendas stared for a moment, clearly confused, ‘I’ll get some drinks.’
‘Sit down,’ the dwarf said hopping off her seat, ‘Shuffle the deck. I’ll get the drinks.’
Aleece was almost as broad as she was tall. The bar came up to her neck and Daffid had to lean over the bar to be able to see her.
‘Wine and ale, Daffid.’
Daffid smiled, nodded, and went about preparing the drinks. Daffid enjoy the fact that his bar was quiet. He didn’t speak when he didn’t have to and he liked that most of his patrons felt the same way. That he didn’t did feel the need to speak had one unusual side effect. His bar attracted some strange folk. Like the one in the back corner. On his third glass of straight whisky. But, they were usually quiet. And pay well.
As Daffid placed the drinks on the counter the door swung open again.
The new customer was short. Shorter than Aleece. They removed their hood when they entered revealing a wide head of green skin, a mouth of rigid sharp teeth, pointed ears, and yellow eyes. A goblin. There was a time when a goblin would have been killed on the spot. Monsters they were called. However, in recent times things have changed. There was some sort of war out in the wastelands to the west and the goblins came in huge numbers seeking refuge. They were given it. Much to the chagrin of the people at the time. But, as with everything, time smoothed out the unease that new peoples bring to simple-minded folks. They took up work, started their own villages, and blended into life here.
Daffid nodded at the goblin who nodded back. The goblin scanned the room. Found the scared man in the back and walked towards him. He sat down, picked up a smoke from the table, lit it, and drained the glass of whisky that had been sitting untouched. He poured himself another.
Fendas had been shuffling the cards and watching the scarred man through the corner of his eye. He recognised him. He knew the face. Knew the black leather. Knew something… well he thought he did. The coin had dropped when the goblin walked in.
Aleece instantly noticed that Fendas looked uncomfortable. Possibly even afraid. In a guess at what was concerning her elven friend she said, ‘I know it’s still strange. But there was a time when dwarves and elves fought on sight too. Things change with time.’
Fendas glared at her and whispered, ‘It’s not that, rock brains.’
‘Oh, right. Back to insults. You know, I could say something about your profession too. Seamstress!’
‘I’m a tailor, you dolt. Too much time down in those mines as a pup, I’d say.’
Fendas began dealing the cards but could not stop looking at the scared man and the goblin in the booth in the corner of the room. Whisky slowly disappeared from the bottle as the smoke obscured their faces.
‘Do you know who that is?’ Fendas asked.
‘Don’t know, don’t care,’ Aleece said, ‘Deal the cards.’
‘You will care,’ Fendas whispered.
‘Why are you whispering?’
‘Ian ‘The Iron’ Knowles. Ring any bells?’
Aleece took a drink of her ale and looked over her tankard to the corner booth, ‘He’s in the Penkarth dungeons, ey?’
‘No, he’s sitting in that booth over there and that is Berj ‘The Bastard’ that just came in,’ Fendas whispered while dealing the cards a little frantically.
Fendas and Aleece took their cards in their hands and held them. Pretended, quite effectively, to organise them and watched as the two in the corner smoked and drank.
Then Aleece, realising how silly they looked, placed two cards on the table without looking at them, ‘Your turn.’
Fendas picked up on the rouse and placed another two cards down and responded stiffly with, ‘Well played.’
During their fake game Iron Knowles and Berj the Bastard started talking. In Ammari at first, simple pleasantries, but soon it turned into the low screeches and guttural rumblings of goblin. The goblin language is famously challenging to master. There is no written script. And each tribal or family group has a slightly different dialect. Non-goblins usually need to be speaking or at least hearing it from a very young age. As a result of that, not many know it. It is quite unnerving to hear anyone other than a goblin speak it.
But these two seemed to speak it fluently.
Aleece pronounced Fendas the winner of the round without really looking at what was placed on the table. Then collected the cards and started to shuffle them again. Fendas walked to the bar and ordered another round of drinks even though they had not finished their last. When he sat down again they continued their ruse. Aleece drained off her first ale.
The door opened.
Two more figures entered.
Iron Knowles and Berj the Bastard stopped talking. Iron Knowles glared.
The two newcomers, men, a human and one of elven heritage, wore khaki coloured cloaks over chain mail, swords hung in scabbards at their hips, heavy metal boots, and faces as hard as steel.
They were Sand Cranes.
‘They’re Sand Cranes,’ Fendas said visibly shaking.
Aleece turned and looked over at her shoulder at the two Sand Cranes standing at the bar and ordering drinks. Daffid’s face had changed from pleasant and welcoming to serious and concerned. He poured their ales and went to clear some tables. Most of the patrons were not paying attention to the people in the room, their quiet chatter continued.
‘Iron Knowles was a Sand Crane,’ Fendas whispered again.
‘How in the hells do you know anything about this?’ Aleece whispered back.
‘I do repairs on town guard uniforms, they talk, they talk a lot. They come in ten at a time for measurements. Oh, no. This is not good. Should we leave?’
‘You mean run out? No.’
‘Nothing will happen, surely,’ Aleece said clearly unsure of her own statement.
‘You see,’ the human Sand Crane spoke, loudly, ‘The problem with the law these days is that it’s too soft.’
‘They never lock anyone away long enough these days,’ the half-elf responded, just as loud. Both men stood facing the bar. Their backs to the rest of the tavern.
‘That’s right. We have all sorts just walking the streets. Don’t we Daffid?’
Daffid froze. He was bent over a table wiping it down. Slowly he turned and looked towards the Sand Cranes, ‘I wouldn’t say that, now. The Guard do a quite a good job of keeping us safe.’
Daffid instantly regretted his words.
‘So, you disagree with me then?’ The human said putting his tankard on the bar and turning his head.
‘Er, well, no, I just. Think.’ Daffid moved quickly behind the bar, ‘I think that it’s all fine usually. That’s all.’
‘It’s all fine is it, right, right. You think it’s fine that turncoat liars get to walk free, yeah?’
Daffid’s eyes widened.
‘No need to fear, Daffid,’ said the half-elf, ‘We’re just voicing our concerns. Our opinions.’
‘Yeah, that’s all.’ The human said.
Iron Knowles stood up from the booth, smoke stuck to his lip. He walked over to the bar and positioned himself a few metres from the Sand Cranes, ‘Two ales, Daffid.’
It was a struggle but Daffid unlocked his limbs and poured two ales. By now the whole place was silently watching the three men at the bar and Daffid, who was barely holding it together. There is a feeling that settles in on a room while tension is building. While everyone’s emotions stir and those at the center of it think through what they are doing. Trying to outmaneuver those they contest. It’s a silence that is impossible to reproduce in any other way.
The silence was painful.
Daffid put the drinks on the counter and the sound of them touching the counter was ear-piercing compared with deathly quiet in the room.
Iron Knowles picked up one of the tankards and drained it in one mouthful. He turned to the two Sand Cranes, ‘That’s the thing with society I suppose. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Regardless of their expertise.’
He spat the last word out as if he had bitten into a piece of rotten flesh. He picked up the second tankard and downed that one as well. Iron Knowles belched, a harsh sound like something from the belly of an animal.
Fendas sat with his eyes locked on the three men at the bar. He could barely move. The two Sand Cranes shook their heads and both took another swig of their ales. These people are dangerous he thought. I could get seriously hurt tonight. If they started to fight. They’re probably going to fight. Right here, I’m going to see some get killed. On that thought, he remembered Berj.
Looking over to Berj he discovered Berj was not there.
The booth was empty.
Fendas scanned the room. He couldn’t see him. He was gone. Vanished. He had heard that goblins were agile and could move silently but not that they could disappear.
‘It’s also the problem with society,’ Iron Knowles continued, ‘All those opinions and no experts. I’m an expert at something though.’
The half-elf started to choke and then a gurgling sound erupted from his throat. Just as the human turned to look at him Iron Knowles stepped forward and with one smooth motion pulled a knife from under his cloak, and the blade into the man’s armpit and punctured his heart. Both Sand Cranes slumped to the ground, piled on top of one another.
Berj stepped out from in front of the falling half-elf, dagger in hand. He and Iron Knowles stood and watched the two heavily armoured men die. When their bodies had stopped convulsing the murderers wiped their blades on the khaki cloaks of the Sand Cranes, leaving dark red stains. Berj slid his dagger into a sheath on the back of his belt, slipped his hood on, and stepped out into the night. Iron Knowles looked around the room, knife still in hand, ‘You do not know my face and you didn’t see me here. I know your faces and have friends that will tell me who talks.’
He unclipped a small coin purse from his belt and dropped it on the counter with a deafening clank. The room was silent again.
‘There, enough in there for one each and the rest goes to Daffid. Take it if you wish. You are not obliged. The only thing you are to do is forget me.’
With that, he walked out of The Dusty Tankard.
Aleece got up from her chair moved slowly over to the pile of dead Sand Cranes. She pushed one with her foot. Nothing happened. Nothing at all. ‘They’re dead,’ she said.
This is a series of short stories. They’re all loosely connected and I have seen that there are some storylines that may go longer. For the most part, though, they are bite-sized stories of action, adventure, and weirdness set in a fantasy world.
Long days and pleasant nights.