The inn’s heavy wooden door creaked open, bathing me in warmth, light and noise.
The place wasn’t busy, but just full enough to have a buzz of chatter. A good place to disappear for a while.
I had to put my weight behind the door to close it as I stepped in. I struggled to decide if it genuinely was heavy, or if the long day’s walk had just sapped my strength.
I shuffled towards the bar, leaning on my stick for support. The innkeeper watched my slow approach.
He smiled as I got nearer and, wisely assuming from my looks that my hearing was failing, raised his voice a little as he asked what I’d like to drink. I didn’t really appreciate him calling me “old man” though, but I let it pass.
I settled onto a bench at the far end of the room, resting my stick against the table and heaving my bag off my shoulder. I was right in the corner, hoping that back there I wouldn’t have to face any questions about who I was, where I was going or where I had come from. Any casual observers would just have to be satisfied with the fact I looked like I was travelling somewhere.
As I sipped my drink and soaked in the atmosphere, I started to wonder if it was worth staying the night here or moving on. It was cold out, and night was beginning to draw in, but I part of me felt I could still reach the next village.
My knees and feet throbbed at the thought, seemingly in protest. Had I been young again, it would have been no trouble at all. Not that it mattered. I was in no rush, simply because I had nowhere to be.
Time slipped by and the candles were lit, giving the inn a hazy feel as twilight wore on and the autumnal winds picked up outside.
A bard walked in, his lute in hand. I held my breath and tried not to let the irritated sneer spread too obviously along my lips.
He practically skipped over to the innkeeper and shared a jolly word or two – clearly old acquaintances. Within a moment of the innkeeper nodding, the bard had spun around to face the rest of the room and began strumming.
I had long-since developed a deep feeling of dread whenever a bard walked into a public place. Stories had a tendency to travel, and songs had an infuriating tendency to evolve out of stories. Stories would inevitably shed crucial details, depending on the teller, but it was almost universal for songs to get warped out of all recognition. I blamed the simple need to fit a tune and rhyme.
I dropped my gaze to my drink as – predictably enough – he sang about ‘the night the mages left us’.
Truth was, they didn’t leave this land. I killed them. Or rather, I had been possessed during an experiment, and…
That was one of the things these stories forgot. To the bards, magic was an absolute; this is magic, this is religion, this is science. All very distinct and all very separate. The reality was that all three sat at an intersection.
Bards never mentioned that. This one, in particular, seemed to just put “the monster” responsible down as having an insatiable bloodlust.
It wasn’t like that. It was an experiment to tap into the divine energies in an attempt to power a device – a complicated thing crafted from an interlinked collection of moving metal and wooden parts.
Ill-advised, perhaps, but monstrous? Hardly. It was an accident. Nothing else.
He continued singing as my memory wandered back to that night. I’d been walking ever since. Yet no matter how far I got, it seemed I couldn’t escape that night. I certainly couldn’t escape the stories – they always seemed to travel faster than I could.
I slowly rubbed my thumb and index finger together and watched tiny sparks dance across the surface of my skin. For a single, dark moment I wondered if I still recalled enough about the arts to lay waste to this place and be done with it.
I snapped back to reality, terrified that my attempts at exorcising the demon had in fact only repressed it.
I took a sip of my drink to try and calm my nerves as the bard finally finished the song. A smattering of applause filled the new silence, before conversations interrupted by the singing started up again. the
The bard looked at the innkeeper, who simply shrugged. It seemed tonight wasn’t the night for performances. Instead, the bard removed his hat and started a lap of the room in search of some coins for his performance.
With a deep, steadying breath I braced myself for his inevitable arrival at my table.
“Spare a few coins for a fellow traveller, sir?”
I looked up at him, his youthful features somehow making me feel ancient.
He smiled in an understanding way and nodded at my bag. “I understand – need to travel light on these roads, eh?” He gave me a wink to underscore his vague reference to local bandits.
“Something like that.”
Something in the tone of my voice must have piqued his curiosity. Perhaps he detected my dislike of the song’s subject matter. “Oh?”
“I just have no truck with wizards, is all. Sorry.”
He smiled. “Magic’s not to everyone’s liking, I’m sure. But, hey, magic’s everywhere, am I right? Just depends how you define it.”
And he wondered off.
I stared into my drink, the sounds of conversation merging into one continuous background hum against my thoughts.
Maybe it wasn’t the spread of stories and songs that meant I couldn’t outrun what had happened.
Maybe magic really was everywhere.